ScienceScope

Science  28 Apr 2000:
Vol. 288, Issue 5466, pp. 589
  1. Just Say No?

    Prompted by critics who say gene patents are being given out too freely, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) offered to “raise the bar” last year. But some prominent critics say the new standard isn't high enough.

    PTO's proposed new guidelines ask its examiners to demand more information about a gene's biological function before awarding a patent (Science, 18 February, p. 1196). PTO invited comments, which are now available on the Web (http://www.uspto.gov/). Although most are favorable, an exception comes from the advisory council for the National Human Genome Research Institute, the federal government's main sequencing funder. Twelve members, including human genome sequencers Maynard Olson and Robert Waterston, wrote en bloc to argue that PTO should issue tighter guidelines that would rule out claims on gene functions not specifically described in an application. For example, the group objects to a broad patent obtained by Human Genome Sciences Inc. of Rockville, Maryland, based on the human CCR5 receptor, which may be useful in AIDS therapy (Science, 25 February, p. 1375).

    Despite such complaints, the PTO isn't likely to raise the bar any higher. “We're taking the guidelines to the executive council” early this summer, one official notes. “My guess is that you'll see very little change” in the final version, due out in 3 months.

  2. New Look

    The Canadian government says a planned overhaul will restore the luster of Health Canada, its scandal-prone health protection bureaucracy.

    Agency officials last week announced a restructuring designed to prevent the repeat of regulatory controversies—involving inadequate oversight of products from silicone breast implants to bovine growth hormone—that have tarnished Health Canada's reputation over the last decade. The redesign (www.hc-sc.gc.ca/english/realign.pdf) calls for creating new branches to track diseases and regulate products, and appointing a new chief scientist to oversee research and field potential complaints about political or industrial influence. Responding to criticism of its 1997 decision to close in-house scientific labs conducting research on food toxins, Deputy Minister David Dodge said Health Canada will also spend the bulk of some $230 million in planned funding increases on hiring new scientists and extending its research partnerships with academe.

  3. Ready for Action

    With summer just months away, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials are saying that a “sound public health control plan is now in place” to contain the mosquito-borne West Nile virus (right), which killed seven people in New York last year (Science, 24 March, p. 2129). “Last fall, many of our state and local partners were unprepared,” CDC West Nile coordinator Stephen Ostroff said at a press conference this week. Now, CDC has spent $2.7 million to help 19 state and local health departments on the Eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico—where migratory birds are most likely to spread the virus—set up virus surveillance and mosquito-control programs.

    Ostroff stressed that the odds of contracting West Nile are very low. An unpublished study by CDC and New York City's department of health found that about 2.5% of over 600 residents of the “Hot Zone”—the area in Queens where most cases occurred—got infected last summer. But the vast majority of those infected suffered mild symptoms or none at all.

  4. Lobbying for Bargains

    AIDS activists are preparing a last-ditch lobbying effort to make cheaper AIDS drugs available to patients in Africa and the Caribbean. A coalition of AIDS groups is backing an effort by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) to amend a pending bill designed to expand trade between the United States, Africa, and Caribbean nations. The amendment would relax patent protections on popular AIDS drugs from major companies, enabling poor nations to import or manufacture them at lower cost. Opponents, including pharmaceutical companies, say the change would open a troubling loophole in international patent law and reduce incentives for R&D. They claim that a lack of doctors, clinics, and planning—not high drug prices—is the major barrier to better AIDS treatment in poorer nations.

    The House has already rejected its version of the Feinstein-Feingold measure, leaving proponents to focus on the Senate, which is expected to complete its work on the trade bill early next month. If the AIDS amendment is added, one Republican aide predicts that “it could become very difficult to craft a final bill. It could be a deal killer.”

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