A FRESH international row has erupted over the US granting patents to medical companies with regard to processes which many scientists believe are basic aspects of human physiology.
Jacques Cohen, one of the world's leading embryologists, has attacked Stanford University, and the biotechnology company Auxogyn over their "outrageous" request to be given a patent on cell-cycle data being used to develop IVF treatments.
This has now been granted by the US patent office.
The decision could make treatments prohibitively expensive, warned Mr Cohen, who has called for "responsible scientists" to campaign against the decision. Fertility experts are infuriated because they believe the patent covers a naturally occurring phenomenon.
"Nature should not be owned by anyone," said Mr Cohen, an embryologist based at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre in Washington. In the journal Reproductive BioMedicine Online, he states: "Claiming aspects of natural processes in embryos as property is an outrageous attempt to over-commercialise every step of an already expensive medical procedure."
The use of cell-cycle timing data to make dramatic improvements in IVF success rates was recently outlined in European research. By studying the time embryos take to develop, researchers could pick the best ones to be implanted into the womb.
To do this, thousands of pictures are taken during the first few days of an IVF embryo's life. Implantation success rates could triple because of this work, researchers said.
But the US granting a patent to cover the time it takes for a cell to divide threatens the new technique's availability, said Martin Johnson, professor of reproductive sciences at Cambridge University: "It will add yet more costs to already expensive treatments for the infertile."
The row has erupted in the wake of the furore created by Myriad Genetics, which has patents on the human genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 – used to forecast cancer risk in women.
Activists say it is immoral to claim ownership of humanity's shared genetic heritage.
Mr Cohen was also opposed to the ease with which patents were being given to cover natural processes. "The decisions being made in corporate and law offices to own bits of the natural development of embryos may thwart exciting developments.
"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."