A fresh international row has erupted over granting US patents to processes which many scientists believe are basic aspects of human physiology.
Jacques Cohen, one of the world’s leading embryologists, has attacked Stanford University and the biotechnology company Auxogyn over their “outrageous” request to be given a patent on cell-cycle data being used to develop IVF treatments. This has now been granted by the US patent office.
The decision could make treatments prohibitively expensive, warned Cohen, who has called for “responsible scientists” to campaign against the decision. Fertility experts are infuriated because they believe the patent covers a naturally occurring phenomenon: the duration of the first three cell cycles in a human embryo.
“Nature should not be owned by anyone,” said Cohen, an embryologist based at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre in Washington. In the journal Reproductive BioMedicine Online, he states: “Claiming aspects of natural processes in embryos as property is an outrageous attempt to over-commercialise every step of an already expensive medical procedure.”
The use of cell-cycle timing data to make dramatic improvements in IVF success rates was recently outlined in the UK. By studying the time embryos take to develop, researchers could pick the best ones to be implanted into the womb. To do this, thousands of pictures are taken during the first few days of an IVF embryo’s life. Implantation success rates could triple because of this work, researchers said.
But the granting of a US patent to cover the time it takes for a cell to divide threatens the new technique’s availability, said Martin Johnson, professor of reproductive sciences at the University of Cambridge: “It will add yet more costs to already expensive treatments for the infertile and is likely to further prejudice the NHS against providing free IVF.”
The row has erupted in the wake of the furore created by Myriad Genetics, which has taken out patents on the human genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, used to forecast cancer risk in women.
In the US, activists, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argue that it is immoral to claim ownership of humanity’s shared genetic heritage. They are calling for the US supreme court to ban Myriad’s patents.
Cohen was also opposed to the ease with which patents were being given to cover natural processes. “The decisions being made in corporate and law offices to own bits of the natural development of embryos may thwart exciting developments. Ultimately, this will come at the cost of clinical freedom and the choices patients make.
“There will be no end to what corporations may claim to own. A few years ago it was the gene sequence, now it is embryonic growth. Next year it may be one’s heartbeat or the synapse.”
Update: response from Auxogyn
Auxogyn Inc., which holds the exclusive licence to the patent, believes it is wrong to suggest that the patent claims a natural process. The patent describes a method of assessing the development of embryos, rather than embryonic development itself.
The company points out that US Patent 7,963,906 B2 claims “a method for assessing the potential for developmental competence of a human embryo…”. It was granted in the US, with a similar patent granted in Europe.
According to Lissa Goldstein of Auxogyn: “our Early Embryo Viability Assessment (Eeva) test is a non-invasive way to help embryologists select the embryos most likely to succeed. Given this ground-breaking advance, Eeva has the potential to minimise unsuccessful IVF treatments, and will therefore reduce patients’ stress and costs.”
• This article was updated on 6 July 2013 following a legal complaint from Auxogyn Inc.
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