Transatlantic Fallout

5 Nov 2007

Two European Court rulings caught the eye recently. Each has dragged on so long that most observers have assumed that the European cases were lost to the might of the super power of America! But not so. First Bill Gates and Microsoft have had to yield in their defence of the charge of unfair “monopoly” in the wars of the Internet. Remarkable decision in the eyes of the disbeliever in EU clout. Less importantly for the man on the autobahn or the woman on the boulevard but crucial for the research community in their ivory towers was the successful challenge against a patent on the breast cancer gene BRCa1. Again a sense of weariness in European science has given way to elation and a feeling that fair play rules once more.


Myriad is an American company which laid claim to the ownership of intellectual property covering both the key genes which determine which members of families with “inherited breast cancer” carry a mutated gene usually one or other of BRCA1 or BRCA2 . A group of French scientists claimed prior discovery of BRCA1 and a consortium led by Professor Mike Stratton in the UK reckoned that their patent was superior to Myriad's!


I vividly recall meetings with the Americans who sought the blessing of Cancer Research Campaign UK for their marketing of a double whammy test which they would price (“reasonably”) and deliver to any woman worried about a familial risk of breast cancer. The Campaign had funded Stratton on the BRCA2 hunt and previously done a fair bit of the preparatory work on finding BRCA1. The Myriad proposal was unsurprisingly not acceptable and discussions ceased. The European Court decision makes the situation clear at least for one of the genes and newspaper reports predicted a considerable fall in the price demanded for the genetic test. Not a bad outcome for cancer patients and their families.