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Landmark Trial About Patenting Humans Begins Today

The American Civil Liberties Union's challenge of patents on two human genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer goes to trial here today.

Around 20 percent of the human genome has been patented by private interests. The trial, which begins today, seeks a ruling on whether such patents violate the Patent Act and the Constitution. The defendant, Myriad Genetics, holds the patents to two human genes and charges $3,000 for its tests to determine whether the genes are present in individuals. These patents prevent other researchers from exploring connections between these genes and breast and ovarian cancer, or to come up with more effective and affordable tests.

Eric Hoffman, genetic engineering policy campaigner for Friends of the Earth, praised the ACLU for bringing the case to trial.

"Genetic material is the basis for all life. It has existed since the beginning of the living world," Hoffman said. "The human genome is shared by all human beings, varying by only a fraction of a percent between people. This makes human genetic material a common good. Scientists are only beginning to understand the complexity of the human genome and by granting ownership over genes, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has limited the ability of scientists and health researchers to learn more about our bodies. This limits progress in fields that have the potential to benefit the health of all people."

The trial beginning today is just one challenge confronting the corporations that are patenting human genes. Federal legislation, the "Genomic Research and Accessibility Act," is soon expected to be introduced by Representative Xavier Becerra (D-CA). This bill prohibits the patenting of naturally occurring genes (nucleotide sequences), their functions, and their naturally occurring products, which the United States Patent and Trade Office has permitted since 1994.

"The Patent Office has erred in allowing corporations to patent parts of our bodies. We welcome Representative Becerra's efforts to change this," Hoffman said. ###

Friends of the Earth is the U.S. voice of the world's largest grassroots environmental network, with member groups in 77 countries. Since 1969, Friends of the Earth has fought to create a more healthy, just world.