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U.S., Britain Discourage Gene Patents

President Clinton Britain and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have come to an agreement aimed at banning the patenting of single genes, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Peter Maer.

The White House describes the plan as a statement of principles to encourage researchers to share their findings on genetic research on cancer and other crucial areas.

“We must ensure the profits of human genome research are measured not in dollars but in the betterment of human lives,” Clinton said Tuesday at the White House, while presenting the 1999 National Medals of Science and Technology.

The United States and Britain have agreed to openly share data from a groundbreaking project to decode the human genetic pattern, a study that could serve as the foundation for developing new medical cures and preventions.

The two countries say they would share raw fundamental data on the human genome, including the human DNA sequence and its variations, with scientists everywhere. A joint statement urges private companies to follow the lead of government laboratories.

Some companies have shared data, while others have not. PE Corp.'s Celera Genomics Corp., a private company that is competing with government researchers, walked away from talks over cooperation and patent opportunities last month.

The White House and directors of the public-private Human Genome Project denied that the timing of the announcement was intended to put pressure on Celera or other private firms.

Duke University researcher Gregory Wray welcomes the plan.

"Individual genes are pieces of information rather than techniques or processes that have particular industrial applications," he told CBS Radio News. "I'd feel uneasy about patenting individual genes."

But Wray and other experts say profit-driven bio-research firms will likely oppose the idea.

"Entrepreneurial people are going to say 'how can I run a viable business if the moment I go public with this, someone can take advantage of it?'" he said.

The White House says the plan would still allow patents on drugs and other inventions from gene research.

The nonprofit Human Genome Project plans to publish a full genetic map on the Internet by 2003. The information would be free and available to all researchers.

“To realize the full promise of this research, raw fundamental data on the human genome, including the human DNA sequence and its variations, should be made freely available to scientists everywhere,” Clinton and Blair said.

“Unencumbered access to this information will promote discoveries that will reduce the burden of disease, improve health around the world and enhance the quality of life for all humankind,” they said. “Intellectual property protection for gene-based inventions will also play an important role in stimulating the development of important new health care projects.”

Wite House press secretary Joe Lockhart said the sharing of data would accelerate scientific advances.

As a practical matter, he said, the U.S. Patent Office has decided that scientists cannot obtain patents for individual genes. However, he said, “If you develop a vaccine or something off of the genetic data -- that will continue to have intellectual property rights.”

Biotechnology stocks, particularly the shares of companies involved in genetic mapping, dragged the Nasdaq lower after the United States and Britain agreed to openly share data from a project to decode the human genetic pattern.

Wall Street reacted quickly to announcement of the agreement, which puts the brakes on several companies' plans to sell genetic data to drugmakers and researchers, including Incyte Pharmaceuticals, Human Genome Sciences, and Celera.

Those reversals helped drag the Nasdaq index down by 200 points on Tuesday in one of its worst sell-offs ever.

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