University of Utah lost gene patents in the US, but enforces them up north.
by Joe Mullin
Last year, the US Supreme Court finally banned patents on human genes after they were handed out by the US Patent and Trademark Office for decades.
The effort was powered by the ACLU and Public Patent Foundation, which gathered a group of plaintiffs who were paying high prices for the patented gene tests on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
Now Canada is about to see a similar suit. The Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) has filed suit (PDF) in Canadian federal court seeking to invalidate patents related to "Long QT syndrome," an inherited heart disorder that affects somewhere between 1 in 3,000 and 1 in 5,000 people. The patents were created at the University of Utah. That's the same US university that was connected to the landmark Myriad case. University of Utah got patents on the BRCA genes and then licensed them exclusively to Myriad Genetics.
CHEO tests kids for Long QT along with more than 20 other genetic disorders. But it can't get certified by the Ontario government to do the test itself because of patents owned by the University of Utah, according to the lawsuit.
"Genes are not inventions," said Dr. Gail Graham of the hospital's genetics department during a press conference on Monday. "They belong to all of us."
Right now, CHEO pays about $4,500 (US) to do the tests for Long QT syndrome by sending the samples off to a lab in the United States. The hospital says it could do the tests itself for about half the cost, if it were free of the patents.
The lawsuit has already sparked debate in Canada.
"The very idea of patenting genes is offensive," wrote The Toronto Star in an editorial published this morning. "While they can be discovered, chunks of human genetic material aren’t new scientific or commercial inventions; they are raw products of nature."
The Long QT patents are all owned by the University of Utah; it co-owns one with Yale University and another with Genzyme Genetics, which is now part of testing giant LabCorp.
The same patent-holders had US patents on the Long QT syndrome, but there's no evidence they enforced them in the US following the Myriad decision.
As for Myriad, it has attempted to extend its control over BRCA testing by filing a new batch of lawsuits based on gene patents it claims are different.