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New biotech patent law gets green light

Patenting genetic sequences could be big business imagepoint

Biotechnology discoveries, such as genetic sequences, will enjoy more protection in Switzerland after parliament voted in favour of a revised patent law.

This content was published on June 12, 2007 - 11:58

Monday's decision in the Senate was in line with that taken by the House of Representatives last year, leading critics to say that the new legislation was a victory for the pharmaceutical industry.

The revised law was approved by 27 votes in favour and none against, with seven abstentions.

Discussions in the Senate focused on how far biotech discoveries should be protected.

The government had proposed that a patent of a genetic sequence should not be restricted to one particular purpose.

This was accepted despite arguments that this would lead to a monopolistic research situation created by patent-holders.

Consumer worries

Senator Simonetta Sommaruga, a national consumer champion, had pointed to the case of a United States firm, Myriad, to illustrate this.

Myriad had mapped the breast-cancer gene and consequently held a worldwide monopoly on breast-cancer tests.

This had led to the price of these tests increasing by up to tenfold.

Another problem, Sommaruga added, was that another researcher had since discovered that the same gene could be a marker for bowel cancer.

It was therefore uncertain whether the latter could apply for a patent as Myriad already held one.

Justice Minister Christoph Blocher dismissed Sommaruga's arguments, saying that the Myriad case was a one-off and that the new Swiss law would prevent monopolies from taking root.

Responding to criticism that the revised legislation weighed too heavily in the pharmaceutical industry's favour, Blocher said that a patent law, which had the opposite effect, was unworkable.

Minority concerns

A minority of senators had tried to press the issue of biopiracy or the patenting of natural resources found in developing countries.

However, Blocher put short shrift to their concerns, saying that the revised law would introduce "an obligation to be transparent" about the origins of an organism for which a patent application is made.

The legislation states a series of exceptions, where organisms may not be patented. These include cloning human beings and using human embryos for non-medical purposes.

Patenting plant varieties and animal species is also not permitted.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA is heriditary material (or genes) that makes up all humans and nearly all other organisms.
DNA information is stored as code made up of four chemical bases: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine.
The order or sequence of bases determines the information required for building and maintaining organisms.

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