In South Africa, the not-so-quick and the dead.

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There’s a crisis in South Africa’s mortuaries – in the investigation of death.

 This is due to a number of problems – incompetent staff who fail to gather forensic evidence, creaking and inadequate facilities, and the sheer number of dead bodies waiting to be processed. In a gripping but bleak documentary about Salt River Mortuary, which is responsible for processing cadavers in the Western Cape, the figures will make you gasp and stretch your eyes:

For the Western Cape alone, 3,000 bodies are handled by this Mortuary each year. Of this number, 65% are unnatural deaths (accidents, suicides, homicides). Of that number (approx 2,000) a staggering 80% are homicides – in other words, Salt River is responsible for providing the forensic evidence for reconstructing the crime scenes leading to 1,600 murders a year.

Watch the ten minute film here. Continue reading

Human genes may not be patented, but synthesised ones can, rules US Supreme Court

298x232-dna_genetic_test-298x232_dna_genetic_testAssociation for Molecular Pathology et al v Myriad Genetics Inc, et al, United States Supreme Court 13 June 2013 – read judgment

The headlines are misleading. Myriad Genetics has lost some, but not all of its patent protection as a result of this final ruling in the long running litigation concerning the company’s BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 breast cancer gene patents. 

According to the American Council on Science and Health, the Court’s decision is

a groundbreaking moment in the history of biotechnology, and a case that will surely rank among the most noteworthy biomedical decisions of our time.

I have posted here, here and here on previous stages in the Myriad patent case, in the United States and Australia, so will not set out the facts again (although for anyone who is interested, the Supreme Court judgment provides a superbly clear explanation of the molecular biology underlying the issues). Continue reading

The Patentability of Human Genes: more developments

Breast Cancer in DNA StrandsCancer Voices Australia v Myriad Inc 13 February 2013 – read judgment

Another battle in the war against gene patenting has been lost, this time in Australia.

The US litigation is still ongoing, with the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upholding Myriad’s patents on DNA sequenced in the laboratory: see my post on that judgment. On 30 November 2012, the US Supreme Court announced that it would hear an appeal in the Myriad case. The US law in relation to the patentability is therefore not likely to be settled until the Supreme Court reaches it own decision on the issue.

This Federal Court ruling in Australia has now endorsed the government’s rejection of calls for an outright ban on the patenting of genes  by ruling that  isolated nucleic acid (including isolated DNA and RNA) is patentable.   Continue reading

Would resurrected Neanderthals have human rights?

mm75890804271827A newsflash on the eve of the May 2010 elections was instantly eclipsed by the news of the coalition-bartering in the days that followed. But it concerned one of the most important scientific discoveries of the year, if not the century.

Evolutionary biologists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany had finished sequencing the Neanderthal genome. In the publication of their results the team pointed up the similarity between the four billion pairs of Neanderthal DNA and stretches of the human genome, suggesting  that humans and their ancient hominid cousins must have interbred some time after modern Homo Sapiens left Africa, meaning that elements of Neanderthal genome is present in non-African modern humans. The study found that 2.5 percent of the genome of an average human living outside Africa today is made up of Neanderthal DNA.  Continue reading

From base pairs to the bedside: medical confidentiality in a changing world

DNA database impact on human rightsThis week David Cameron announced plans  to introduce whole genome mapping for cancer patients and those with rare diseases within the NHS. 

Single gene testing is already available across the NHS ranging from diagnosing cancers to assessing patients’ risk of suffering side effects from treatment, but this initiative will mean that the UK will be the first country in the world to introduce the technology within a mainstream health system, with up to 100,000 patients over three to five years having their whole genome – their personal DNA code –sequenced. According to Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies

The genome profile will give doctors a new, advanced understanding of a patient’s genetic make-up, condition and treatment needs, ensuring they have access to the right drugs and personalised care far quicker than ever before.

What will this mean for medical confidentiality?  The official announcement ends with the following declaration:

1. Genome sequencing is entirely voluntary. Patients will be able to opt out of having their genome sequenced without affecting their NHS care.

2.  Whole genome sequence data will be completely anonymised apart from when it is used for an individuals own care.

3. A number of ways to store this data will be investigated. The privacy and confidentiality of NHS patients will be paramount in this decision. Continue reading

Should any genetic information be a trade secret?

dna_infograph1I posted previously on the decision by the   US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to uphold the patents on the genetics company Myriad’s gene sequences for breast cancer research and therapy. In September 2012 the American Civil Liberties Union once again petitioned for Supreme Court review.  The Court should decide today whether to review the case.

The whole question of proprietary claims over genetic information is not limited to patents and is very much open to debate.  In my piece on the US Bioethics Commission’s report to the Obama administration I discussed the challenge faced by lawmakers in regulating the increasing flow of genomic information so as to protect people’s privacy without shutting down the flow of data vital to biomedical research. Whilst it is true that the availability of patent protection creates vital incentives for such research, genetic testing companies like Myriad can extend their exclusivity beyond their patented products by creating limiting access to private databases containing information vital to interpreting the clinical significance of human genetic variations. There is concern that this threatens to impede the clinical interpretation of genomic medicine. The Genomics Law Report Journal reports that

National health systems and insurers, regulators, researchers, providers and patients all have a strong interest in ensuring broad access to information about the clinical significance of variants discovered through genetic testing. Continue reading

Can we keep our genomes quiet? Some suggestions from the US

DNA database impact on human rights

I have posted previously on the logistical difficulties in legislating against genetic discrimination.

The prospect that genetic information not only affects insurance and employment opportunities is alarming enough. But it has many other implications: it could be used to deny financial backing or loan approval, educational opportunities, sports eligibility, military accession, or adoption eligibility.  At the moment,  the number of documented cases of discrimination on the basis of genetic test results is small. This is probably due to the relatively few conditions for which there are currently definitive genetic tests, coupled with the expense and difficulty of conducting these tests. But genetic discrimination is a time bomb waiting to be triggered and the implications of whole genome sequencing (WGS) are considered in a very interesting and readable report by the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues  Privacy and Progress in Whole Genome Sequencing. 

Continue reading