BioNews has made a number of changes to this article, which originally appeared in BioNews 707. The amended article can be read below.
A patent over a method for assessing cell-cycle data that can be used in IVF treatments to predict an embryo's future viability will make IVF treatments in the USA prohibitively expensive, a leading embryologist has said.
The patent, which was granted to Stanford University and exclusively licensed to biotech company Auxogyn, has attracted opposition from leading embryologist Professor Jacques Cohen, who offers IVF for military personnel at the ART Institute in Washington DC.
'Nature should not be owned by anyone', said Professor Cohen. Writing in the journal Reproductive BioMedicine Online, he said: 'Claiming aspects of natural processes in embryos as property is an outrageous attempt to over-commercialise every step of an already expensive medical procedure'.
Data obtained from thousands of images taken during the development of an early-stage embryo during IVF treatment can help doctors determine which embryo is most suitable for implantation. But Cohen says the patent covers a naturally occurring process of development in the first three cell cycles of an embryo and may not therefore be patentable.
Auxogyn disagrees, pointing to the language of the US patent which makes no claim to any aspect of nature but is 'a method for assessing the potential for developmental competence of a human embryo'. This patent has been granted by the US patent office with an equivalent granted by the European Patent Office.
The patenting of human genes or genetic information has attracted a great deal of attention in the United States and elsewhere. Supporters argue that patents are essential for innovation and securing investment into research, but opponents say it is unethical to patent natural substances and that patent protection could stifle research by requiring researchers to pay royalties to use patented material.
'The decisions being made in corporate and law offices to own bits of the natural development of embryos may thwart exciting developments', said Professor Cohen. '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'.
According to Lissa Goldstein, CEO of Auxogyn, 'The patent system encourages medical research and ultimately benefits patients. By improving the chances of IVF succeeding, Auxogyn's Early Embryo Viability Assessment or "Eeva" test may decrease the number of IVF cycles needed and therefore may reduce the cost and stress of IVF.'
Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court is due to hear arguments on Myriad's patents over the BRCA1 and 2 gene mutations, which the company asserts cover 'isolated' DNA molecules that would not exist if they had not been removed from a chromosome, explains the New Statesman.