Now It's Canada's Turn To Decide On The Patentability Of Genes

from the matter-of-life-and-death dept

It's taken a surprisingly long time for countries to settle the question of whether something as fundamental as genes can be patented or not. And opinions still differ: last year, the US Supreme Court ruled that naturally-occurring genes couldn't be patented, while more recently, Australia went the other way (although it's possible that ruling could be overturned by higher courts there). Now a test case has been filed this week to establish the situation in Canada, as the Toronto Star reports:

Monday's legal case, brought by the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), deals with five patents held in Canada by the University of Utah on genes and tests for an inherited cardiac condition called Long QT syndrome.
Interestingly, the case is not about genes that play a role in developing breast cancer, which were the focus of attention in both the US and Australian court decisions. However, as with breast cancer, the effects of allowing gene patents in this area is the same -- to drive up the cost of testing:
The two-tier test [for Long QT syndrome] currently costs approximately $4,500 (U.S.) per person, CHEO estimates, whereas researchers at the hospital believe they could administer the same process in-house for about half the cost.

"The collective impact (of this case) could easily be in the orders of millions of dollars for the healthcare system," said Gail Graham, a clinical geneticist at the hospital.
This isn't just about money: it's a matter of life and death. The more expensive a gene-based test, the less likely it will be used by hospitals, which are struggling to make their limited budgets stretch as far as possible. And that means that medical conditions will be missed, with serious, possibly fatal, consequences.

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Filed Under: canada, dna, genes, patents
Companies: cheo, children's hospital of eastern ontario, university of utah

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  1. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 7 Nov 2014 @ 12:32pm


    I agree with you, but I think that it can be very, very tricky to draw a line between what should be counted as purely option and what should be counted as necessary.

    In many cases, this comes down to "what is the purpose of medicine?" Is it just to ensure that nobody dies as far as possible? If that's the case, then the line is bright and clear. But I don't think that's the case -- I think the purpose of medicine is to improve the health of the patient. There, things get fuzzier.

    For example, many plastic surgeries -- say, to correct disfigurement from gross injury -- are technically optional because the patient will live if they don't get it. But the surgery may be necessary to prevent them from having a nightmarish life.

    So, I'm not disagreeing with you, but just wanted to point out that these issues are often far from cut & dried.

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