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Researchers, Patients Defend Biotechnology

By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence

WASHINGTON- A new coalition of mainstream religions has launched a campaign seeking to overturn current laws allowing the patenting of genes used for medical and research applications.

The coalition includes nearly 100 religious leaders from Catholic, Jewish, Islamic and Buddhist faiths, as well as fundamentalist Christian organizations. The group also includes Jeremy Rifkin, the controversial and outspoken critic of the biotechnology industry. Rifkin is on record as an opponent of all forms of biotechnological research.

The group released a statement outlining their objections to the patenting of gene related discoveries. The group seeks to overturn the current federal laws governing the awarding of gene based patents. The coalition claims to base their campaign on moral and ethical grounds.

Patenting unique genes and organisms has been legal since a Supreme Court decision in 1980 allowed the Exxon oil company to patent an oil-eating microorganism. Since that time, patents have been awarded for a number of genetically altered mice as well as for specific genes, such as the CFTR gene for cystic fibrosis. The debate of who 'owns' specific genes in the human genome has also recently been gaining momentum, as different companies claim to have certain rights to human gene libraries they have established.

"This issue is going to dwarf the pro-life debate within a few years. I think we are on the threshold of mind-bending debates about the nature of human life and animal life. We see altering life forms, creating new life forms, as a revolt against the sovereignty of God and an attempt to be God," of the Southern Baptist Convention, told the press.

Representatives of the biotechnology industry claim that the right to patent genetic discoveries and products provides the primary economic incentive for research. Companies seek to recoup the huge research expenditures associated with this kind of work by patenting discoveries. This gives the company sole rights to market the product for a period of years and to seek royalties from other companies that seek to use the product. Under current law, a biotechnology patent does not mean that the patent holder owns a specific gene forever. A patent only gives the holder temporary protections concerning the use of a gene for commercial purposes.

"I don't believe there is an inconsistency between what we seek as members of the scientific community with the values of the religious community. Biotechnology is a very young industry and perhaps it is misunderstood," said Dr. G. Kirk Raab, President and CEO of Genentech.

"The biotechnology industry needs to engage the religious community in a thoughtful dialogue and conversation about biotechnology-- its hope and promise. I believe that when these leaders have the full facts in front of them, they will understand we are allies in seeking ways to combat disease and unnecessary suffering on the planet," he added.

Medical researchers have been quick to criticize the efforts of the religious coalition. Dr. D. Eugene Redmond, Jr., M.D., Director of the Yale Neural Transplant Program, called the program an "ill thought out scare campaign" and said such an action could jeopardize on-going research for cures and treatment of Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and other diseases and disorders.

"As a Parkinson's patient, I know that it is our clock that is ticking as we wait for a cure. It is important that an ill-thought out scare campaign could stall a breakthrough and doom us to further unnecessary suffering. At the present time there are some 25 to 30 American pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies working on therapeutics relating to the cure and relief of Parkinson's Disease," said Joan Samuelson, President of the Parkinson's Action Network.

"There are 29 Biotechnology-derived drugs or vaccines that are now on the market to treat diabetes, hepatitis, cardiovascular diseases, anemia, dwarfism, cystic fibrosis and the effects of chemotherapy on cancer patients. At least 230 other drugs are in the human clinical trial stage of FDA approval to treat, cure, prevent or diagnose scores of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS, sickle cell anemia, and AIDS," she added.

The major areas in which DNA technology has already produced tremendous breakthroughs are in the production of pure and complex new therapeutic products; the development of modified animals which allow important disease theories or drugs to be tested; and the introduction of DNA sequences into the body (gene therapy) to treat genetic deficiencies or to produce therapeutic responses, noted Dr. Redmond.

"All of these techniques carry enormous potential for treatment of diseases from Parkinson's to AIDS and cancer -- undoubtedly the most important new technologies that provide hope for the cure of diseases that medicine has been unable to treat effectively, in addition to applications from agriculture to the environment," Dr. Redmond said.

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