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.