An Owners’ Guide

Pharmaceutical companies are mining your DNA for scientific gold

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Baldness gene
Patent pending
Columbia University
Alzheimer’s gene
Patent 5,508,167
Duke University,
licensed to Glaxo Wellcome
Parkinson’s disease gene
Patent pending
National Human Genome
Research Institution
(National Institutes of Health)

Brain cancer gene
Patent pending
Myriad Genetics

Blindness gene
(retinitis pigmentosa)
Patent 5,705,380
Axys Pharmaceuticals/ Jackson Lab

Premature aging gene
(Werner’s Syndrome)
Patent pending
Darwin Molecular, licensed to Geron Corp.

Asthma gene
Patent pending
Axys Pharmaceuticals

High blood pressure gene
(hypertension)
Patent 5,589,584
University of Utah Research Foundation, licensed to Myriad Genetics

Epilepsy gene
Patent pending
Stanford University, licensed to Progenitor

Obesity gene
Patent 5,646,040
Millennium Pharmaceuticals, licensed to Hoffmann-
La Roche

Osteoporosis gene
Patent 5,501,969
Human Genome Sciences

Melanoma gene
Patent 5,633,161
Millennium Pharmaceuticals

Glaucoma gene
Patent pending
University of Connecticut/ InSite Vision

Cardiovascular disease gene
Patent pending
Myriad Genetics/ Novartis

Breast and ovarian cancer gene
Patent 5,693,473
Myriad Genetics/ Centre de Recherche du Chul/ Japanese Foundation for Cancer Research

Colon cancer gene
Patent 5,648,212
University of Utah/ Johns Hopkins University/ Japanese Foundation for Cancer Research/ Zeneca Limited

Arthritis gene
(rheumatoid arthritis and some autoimmune diseases)
Patent 5,556,767
Human Genome Sciences

Human Growth Hormone gene
Patent 5,597,709
Human Genome Sciences

Iron overload gene
(hemochromatosis)
Patent 5,705,343
Progenitor, licensed to SmithKline Beecham

Since the early 1990s fledgling genomic companies with enigmatic names such as Progenitor, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, and Darwin Molecular have been pinpointing and patenting human life with the help of $4.5 billion in investments from pharmaceutical companies. The science could lead to cures for cancer and many inherited diseases. But monopoly patents hinder that promise.

Myriad Genetics, for example, found a gene that causes inherited breast cancer and licensed the therapeutic development rights to Eli Lilly. Activists worry that exclusive patent rights over the gene could lead to more expensive gene screening tests and treatments. Patents give companies the right to determine who gets access to genes and at what price. Researchers express concern that exclusive patents will have a “chilling effect” on research and increase medical costs. Biotech companies say patents—and the resulting licensing fees—provide the key incentive for this research. But in Myriad’s own corporate literature, the firm candidly admits that its “broad and substantial proprietary estate” of breast cancer genes not only promises huge profits but keeps competitors at bay. “The identification and patenting of genes,” notes Myriad, “will present [competitors with] significant barriers to entry.”

illustration by Gary Panter

Research provided by the Rural Advancement Foundation International

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