Molecular Biology

Google has a great new service: Google Patent Search. I tried “gene sequence” and got back over 1200 hits. This is disturbing on a couple of levels, for example: a patent on the Coding sequences of the human BRCA1 gene.

Two things are big issues here:

  • How can the (idiotic?) US Patent office grant patents on what any normal person would call a work of Nature? Didn’t the courts shoot that down? They should. This isn’t an “invention”, it’s a discovery of something Nature has done.
  • The above patent (and others like it) are also a concern, since mutations to the BRCA1 gene are linked to human ovarian and breast cancer. Thus, patenting the sequence prevents production of generic techniques for detecting such mutations. The patent does also include specific techniques for detecting mutations. I don’t have a problem with patenting certain techniques – but there is a fine line. Patenting the *sequence* crosses it, though.

Somebody needs to give the USPTO a wakeup call.

Multiplication of tumor cells is suppressed by the same set of genes as those that suppress multiplication of normal cells of the same type during differentiation; tumors arise when these genes are impaired.

Oncogenic mutations (and oncogenic viruses) release the brakes that tumor-suppressor genes apply.

In gene therapy, you insert a therapeutic gene into a “disabled” retrovirus (a vector). The vector is then used, e.g., to infect bone-marrow stem cells from a patient, and the cells are then re-injected into the patient. The hope is that they will multiply into (in this case) normal immune cells. This was used to treat 10 kids in France in 2000-2002. However, 2 of the 10 developed leukemia-like conditions.

The ability of the viruses to insert themselves into DNA was also why they were able to activate a cancer-promoting gene (an oncogene).

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
   by Mary Beard