Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Supreme Court gene patent decision means little for eczema research

Following last week’s decision by the US Supreme Court that human genes cannot be patented, I’d say nothing has changed for eczema patients.

What I mean is that it makes little difference to eczema therapies now or in the future whether companies can obtain US patents on human genes.

I see two major issues: moral and commercial. Morally, I feel it’s a great triumph that even the famously conservative justices of the Supreme Court—who we really expected to side with big bucks, as they seem reliably to do—unanimously affirmed that nobody can own naturally-occurring human DNA. No company can own a piece of my genetic heritage.

Commercially, the issue is intellectual property. I work in biotech, and every day I hear about how it’s crucial for companies to control their IP. No investor is going to back a company that can obviously be sued in the future or that is developing a product that could instantly be copied by a competitor without penalty.

The loser in the decision was Myriad Genetics, which owned the US patent on BRCA1 and BRCA2, two human genes in which mutations increase one’s chances of getting breast cancer. (From what I can tell, Myriad had patents on the normal genes as well as common cancer-linked mutations.) Myriad had exclusive rights to DNA tests that could determine whether patients had mutations. Now many other companies are developing similar tests, and the competition will drive down the price of the tests.

That’s great if you want to get tested for breast cancer. But what does it mean for companies that are developing diagnostic tests for other conditions? These companies may abandon their efforts. Or the companies may never get started.

At least that is what one commercially-minded person whose views I respect tells me.

The Faster Cures blog, conversely, makes the point that patenting DNA could, and has, led to R&D on diseases being blocked by legal obstruction. Lilly, apparently, spent eight years fighting Harvard, MIT and others over the rights to one particular gene, NF-kB. Presumably lots of money got spent that might have gone to actual research instead of lawyers.

But for a gene patent to be useful, there must first of all be a strong link between genetics and disease. Eczema, despite being known to have a strong genetic component, has not been definitively linked to genes except in the case of filaggrin. There are a few mutations that seem to correspond to particularly severe eczema but they don’t occur in many people.

In any case, the sequence of filaggrin was made public in 2006 so the point is moot—once made public, an invention can’t be patented. (I searched the US Patent and Trademark Office database and didn’t see anything.)

Also a diagnostic test is only useful if it gives you information you can act on. There’s no point telling an adult that they have severe eczema, because they already know that. And if parents learn that their child is at risk—not guaranteed—of developing eczema, what can they do to prevent it?

Not much that I know of.

Diagnostics aside, how might a gene patent be useful?

Many drugs or biotherapies being developed affect how genes are regulated—how the process of turning their information into protein is amplified or damped. Perhaps owning a gene patent would let you control work that other people are doing to regulate that gene. We’ll never know now! What is certain, though, is that if you had a gene patent and lots of money, you could probably intimidate other companies by threatening them with expensive legal action.

I don’t think enough is known about eczema at this point that a gene patent would have been a factor. Look at the existing therapies and the few in the pipeline (such as Anacor’s). They are all either anti-inflammatories or calcineurin inhibitors. They don’t affect genes directly.

Researchers are starting to put together useful models of how itch signals get transmitted from the skin to the brain. For itch, we wouldn’t be interested in a diagnostic, but we would like to have a therapy. It’s conceivable that one or two genes may turn out to be key, and we might want drugs to regulate them. But gene patents would not be necessary for scientists or companies to do that work.

In short: last week’s Supreme Court decision, while morally important and laudable, will have little effect on the field of eczema research and therapy.

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