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AIDS Treatment News
Religious Coalition Opposes Gene Patents
John S. James
May 19, 1995
AIDS TREATMENT NEWS Issue #223, May 19, 1995

On May 18, a coalition of mainstream religious leaders, working with Jeremy Rifkin of the Foundation for Economic Trends, who has long opposed many uses of biotechnology, will hold a press conference opposing the patenting of human and animal life forms, body parts, and genes. The biotechnology industry has been surprised by this movement and very concerned, because it sees such patents as essential for companies to raise the investment money to develop new products, including treatments for diseases. According to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, "Virtually all of the 29 biotech drugs that are on the market have been developed as a result of patents on genes... Patents are particularly important because they indicate that a company's research tool has significant value, and they encourage venture capitalists to invest their dollars into that specific company." Major articles about this controversy have appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES, May 13, THE WASHINGTON POST, May 13, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, May 15, and also in the May 15 BIOCENTURY, a weekly faxed newsletter published by BioCentury Publications Inc. in San Carlos, California. According to THE NEW YORK TIMES, "Leaders from virtually every major religion in the Unites States plan to issue a joint statement next week asking the Government to prohibit the current patenting practices for genetic engineering." While business appears to be united in opposing restrictions on the patenting of human or animal genes, not all scientists agree. Some are troubled for both religious and scientific reasons by certain practices, especially patents on human genes or body parts such as stem cells. One told us of a number of dysfunctions of the current system of proprietary ownership of biological products. [For example, a number of scientists believe that the cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin may be useful in the treatment or prevention of pancreatic, breast, and other cancers, but cancer research could hurt the drug's commercial value; publicity about the research would cause some patients to fear that their physicians were really treating them for cancer but not telling them, making physicians reluctant to prescribe the drug. Merck & Co., which owns lovastatin, says that "Merck is not developing lovastatin as a cancer treatment, because our review of the reports on the use of lovastatin is that its effectiveness as a cancer treatment is minimal. However, this same review has spawned one of the largest research programs at Merck in what we hope will be the fruitful area of cancer research."] (The religious coalition opposed to gene patents is not targeting pharmaceutical patents. Also it is not targeting plant patents, perhaps to avoid arousing the agricultural industry.) Comment This issue will not go away; both sides are powerful and deeply concerned, and we believe that many small compromises and procedural changes will occur over the years. What is important is that the interests of persons with serious illness -- and persons who may have serious illness in the future, which means everyone -- be well represented in any negotiations and changes which occur. It is not enough to "just say no" to gene patents and let people die. But unless workable alternatives are developed before current procedures are blocked, that is what will happen.

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