Four Corners - Patently a Problem

Every day, worldwide, laboratories routinely analyse human genes to pinpoint a whole range of suspected diseases. Life-saving treatment can depend on fast, accurate diagnoses. Tests like these cost a lot of money. And now corporations are moving to cash in.

It's a development that deeply worries some scientists who fear the public good is falling victim to private profit. Are the public health benefits of speedy diagnoses and groundbreaking research being jeopardised in a rush for a biotech bonanza?

Four Corners spotlights one Australian company, a hot item on the stock market, which is aggressively enforcing a suite of patents that affect an extraordinary 95 per cent of every living creature's DNA. The company claims most genetic testing labs around the world are infringing its patents - and it wants licence fees from them. Four Corners reveals how in at least one small country it is seeking millions of taxpayers' dollars to license the patents.

Some scientists and research institutions question the company's patents, but no one yet has dared to step into court. A legal challenge - especially in America - would be costly, especially when the patents are reinforced with litigation insurance provided by the world's biggest corporation. Four Corners talks to the man who heads the upstart Aussie biotech company and who travels the world clinching new licensing deals for his shareholders. He tells why he feels right to enforce his patents and why he thinks his company is good for medical science.

As the biotech revolution powers ahead, reporter Jonathan Holmes investigates whether a system meant to encourage investment and to reward invention may instead deny the people it is supposed to help: those who suffer genetically inherited diseases.

Year of Production: 2001
Production note: © ABC TV
Duration: 45 mins

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