Charity makes cancer gene freely available across Europe

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 19 February 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:423
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. London

    The charity Cancer Research UK announced last week that it had obtained a Europe-wide patent onthe hereditary breast cancer gene BRCA2 and will allow publicly owned laboratories and hospitals to use the gene free of charge.

    The granting of the European patent will extend access to the gene. Currently access is available to UK researchers because the charity already holds a UK patent on the gene.

    The patent covers all attempts to sequence the gene or to test for damaged or inactive variants—such as testing people for BRCA2 variants to assess their risk of developing cancer. Any laboratory wanting to investigate the gene would usually have to pay a licence fee to the patent holder, but Cancer Research Technology, the commercial subsidiary of Cancer Research UK, has agreed to waive the fees for all public laboratories that apply to use the gene for non-profit making research and clinical purposes.

    Embedded Image

    A dividing breast cancer cell. Cancer Research UK believes that cancer is too major a threat to human life for research “to be limited by commercial greed”

    Credit: WG/SPL

    John Toy, medical director of Cancer Researcher UK, said: “We are very pleased that the European Patent Office has granted this patent, as it will mean that cancer researchers throughout Europewho wish to work on the BRCA2 gene will be able to do so easily and without expense.”

    The situation in Europe was previously complicated by the fact that a US biotechnology company,Myriad Genetics, had been awarded patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, as well as patents covering antibodies to the BRCA proteins coded for by the genes. These patents gave the company rights todevelop commercial laboratory testing services, diagnostic tests, and treatments that are based onthe gene sequences.

    However, a UK patent was also held by Cancer Research Technology because much of the BRCA2 genewas first published by Professor Mike Stratton's group at the Institute of Cancer Research, London,on the basis of work funded by Cancer Research UK.

    “Myriad had been trying to offer commercial deals to researchers working on BRCA1 and 2. Our patent will break that gridlock,” explained Dr Toy. “Cancer is too major a threat to human life for research to be limited by commercial greed,” he added.

    A spokesman for the charity said that Cancer Research Technology's patent was wider than Myriad's, and therefore covered more applications.

    Gert Matthijs, head of molecular diagnostics at University Hospital Leuven, Belgium, and a representative of the European Society of Human Genetics, said: “On behalf of the many European genetic diagnostic laboratories involved in the opposition procedures against the patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes owned by Myriad Genetics, we wish to express our strong appreciation to Cancer Research UK, because they have chosen to offer royalty free licences on its patent on the BRCA2 gene to the public health services.”

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