A Canadian hospital has launched a court challenge with the ultimate goal of invalidating patents on human genes, saying such protection can adversely affect the health of patients and is boosting the country’s health-care costs.
Lawyers for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, or CHEO, filed the challenge Monday in Federal Court in Ottawa, arguing that genes and other segments of the human genome should not be subject to patents for commercial or any other purposes.
With the advent of new genomic technologies, labs in Canada now have the capability to screen for a number of genetic conditions, including Long QT.
However, because of the patent, they cannot disclose findings related to that specific genes to patients or doctors. That means if a doctor suspects a patient may have the syndrome, they must order the test through the patent holders in the United States.
“Right now patents would prevent our laboratory scientists, who see that mutation in their data analysis from revealing that information to the doctors caring for that child,” said Dr. Gail Graham, the Chief of the regional genetics program at CHEO. “So the child and the family would never be aware. The child would be untreated.”
“To put it simply, our doctors and scientists simply cannot accept the prospect of a child dying or potentially being orphaned because a patent prevented us from diagnosing and treating a serious, life-threatening condition” she added.
If the patents are invalidated, CHEO and other Canadian hospitals would be able to test for this genetic issue at home, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars and reducing the time it takes to diagnose a patient and their family.
“While Long QT is the test subject for this litigation, really at its heart is a much larger principle,” said Dr. Graham. “Genetics is poised to make major advances that will allow us to more rapidly provide life-saving diagnoses and treatments and continued patenting of genes could stop us from realizing that potential. Nothing is preventing new genes from being patented right now in Canada and there are probably gene-patent applications pending as we speak.”
She said more new gene patents present more potential barriers to patient care.
“We are at the dawn of this new era of genetic medicine and the only reason we are taking this step is to be able to put the tools in the hands of our physicians so that they are able to use every benefit of that medicine to change lives and to save lives,” said CHEO CEO Alex Munter.
Gilbert’s LLP, a Canadian law firm committed to breaking legal barriers that restrict access to health technologies has taken on the case pro bono.