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News Briefs

Aggressive Patenting May Stifle Gene Discovery Benefits


In one of the landmark cases dealing with the controversy involving human gene patenting, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania argue that patent holder Myriad Genetics, a Utah company, used its ownership claims on two genes to stifle development of new tests and treatments for breast cancer.

Early work on the genes, called BRCA1 and BRCA2, followed what used to be a familiar pattern. Scientists at several institutions raced to locate and decode the genes, which are linked to families with high rates of breast and ovarian cancers. Myriad, collaborating with the National Institutes of Health, got to BRCA1 first and later claimed it was first to BRCA2 as well.

Researchers, including Pennsylvania University’s lab research director Arupa Ganguly, followed up by developing tests for variations in the genes that can signal susceptibility to disease. By 1998, the Penn lab was performing more than 700 tests a year.

That’s when Myriad used its patent to pull the plug. It notified Ganguly and her colleagues that they could no longer do more than a handful of tests. The company also required the genes’ co-discoverer, former NIH collaborator Phillip Futreal, to pay Myriad for tests he needed for his research. And it set a $2,580 fee for the test, more than twice that charged by most other labs, including Penn’s.

Recently, after a furor over the fee, the company relented and agreed to charge only $1,200 when federally funded research such as Futreal’s is involved.

U.N. OKs Beefing Up Troops for Sierra Leone Defense


The Security Council on Monday nearly doubled the number of U.N. troops to be deployed in the West African nation of Sierra Leone and gave them new powers to defend themselves and civilians, after several embarrassing incidents in which peacekeepers in charge of disarmament were stripped of their own arms by rebels.

The council voted unanimously to increase the force from 6,000 to 11,100, which will make it the United Nations’ largest field operation.

The U.N. mission in Sierra Leone, established in October, is being expanded to replace departing West African troops who expelled the rebels from the capital, Freetown, and helped restore President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to power. Some of the Nigerian soldiers from the West African coalition will join the U.N. force, trading their hats for the peacekeepers’ trademark blue helmets.

The new deployment order comes at a crucial time in the country’s faltering peace. A cease-fire signed in July was expected to end Sierra Leone’s particularly brutal eight-year civil war. When rebels were forced to retreat from Freetown last year, they cut off the arms, legs and ears of many civilians, including children, on their way out, and hundreds of children were abducted to be trained as young rebel warriors.