NBCF statement on patenting of human genetic material

February 22nd, 2013

The National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) is the leading Australian community-funded organisation raising and granting funds for breast cancer research.

We work with the community to raise the funds; then distribute these on a competitive basis to the best researchers in the country; the researchers then generate new knowledge relevant to all aspects of breast cancer; which finally, is translated over time into health returns for the community.

It is important, therefore, that NBCF remains mindful of both community and research needs, as the key to accelerating progress in our detection and treatment of breast cancer is the collaboration between the two which we aim to facilitate.

NBCF strongly opposes any impediments to the timely and cost-effective diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

Consumer concerns

The February 2013 Federal court ruling in the case of Cancer Voices Australia versus Myriad Genetics is the latest development in a complex, global picture. This ruling permitted the exclusive right held by Myriad on BRCA1 gene testing to continue.

This ruling places potential restrictions on the availability of testing for inherited mutations in this breast and ovarian cancer gene, and sets a precedent for similar patents to be granted on the testing of other genes critical to the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

The upholding of this ‘monopoly’ on the BRCA1 gene test also prohibits patients from obtaining a second, possibly cheaper, opinion on their test results. In Australia the ‘monopoly’ is held by Genetic Technologies.

A decade after the sequencing of the human genome, and through the more recent cancer genome project, we are now in the unique position of being able to translate this fundamental knowledge about the genetic make-up of our species into real advances in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer – in particular, away from ‘one size fits all’ approaches towards personalised medicine, tailored to the individual. The removal of any barriers to this translation is an imperative.

Concerns for research

On the other hand, as a leading funder of breast cancer research in Australia, NBCF also acknowledges that innovation is the cornerstone of the research process.

For innovation to flourish and for the investments in research to be fully realised, we do need an environment where novel and innovative advances in research (broadly termed ‘intellectual property’) are acknowledged and can be commercialised and protected through the issuing of patents.

If such an environment were not provided by patent law, major advances in the treatment and prevention of disease such as the invention of the cervical cancer vaccine (Gardasil) would never have happened.

We recognise that current Australian laws around patenting of genetic material have not kept pace with the major advances in genetic technologies over recent years, and may restrict the enormous diagnostic and therapeutic potential such advances represent.

The US Supreme Court will make its ruling on the issue later this year.

We Need Your Help

On the basis of the very real concerns we see for both members of the community and researchers in this important issue, NBCF is calling for a detailed and informed review of Australian patent legislation (the Patent Act) specifically with respect to the issuing of patents involving human genetic material.

This law needs to be reviewed to protect the rights of the community, while ensuring innovation can also flourish in the best interests of the community.

We call on all NBCF supporters to use this link to a template letter and sign and send this to your local Member of Parliament. It is important to keep public debate running on this issue of great significance to both the community and the research field, and to both present and future generations.

Thank you for adding your voice.

Further information

For further information on the consumer aspects of this issue, see:

  • Cancer Voices Australia has put a petition up for signing.
  • You may also be interested to read Dr James D Watson’s (the legendary co-discoverer of the double helix)amicus brief on the issue.

Other interesting articles from the research perspective: