GeneWatch PR: Patent on life warning as links between Biotech companies and Japan Tobacco exposed

For immediate release, Monday 12th November 2001

GeneWatch UK warned today that granting patents on genes could lead to exclusive control over new treatments and medicines falling into the wrong hands. The warning came as GeneWatch and The Guardian newspaper revealed exclusive deals between two US biotech companies and Japan Tobacco for the rights to develop and market new lung cancer vaccines (1,2). Anti-tobacco campaigners and the World Health Organisation also condemned the deals.

"Giving a tobacco company exclusive rights to lung cancer vaccines is like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank," said Dr Helen Wallace, Deputy Director of GeneWatch UK. "The system of granting patents on genes underpins one of these exclusive deals, allowing companies to seize genetic information and sell it to the highest bidder. Governments must end the patenting of genes and stop biotech companies like Corixa and Cell Genesys riding roughshod over patients’ interests."

Clive Bates, Director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) said: "Even for the tobacco industry, the attempt to integrate smoking and sickness marks a new frontier in cynicism and greed. While they’re frantically promoting the image of a carefree smoking lifestyle, they’re planning to cash in on a dreadful illness."

Derek Yach, Director of Non-communicable Diseases at the World Health Organisation (WHO) said: "We tackle lung cancer by breaking the addictive grip of the tobacco industry and taking action to help people quit smoking or never start. The last company that should control the rights to a lung cancer vaccine is one that makes huge profits from products that cause the disease in the first place."

Much of the biotech companies’ research has involved patient volunteers. Corixa’s patent claims reveal that cells from at least two lung cancer patients were used in their research. Other patients have been involved in clinical trials for the vaccines. The patents do not reveal whether the patients were smokers.

"Smoking kills," said Dr Wallace. "It seems unlikely that these patients would have wanted the results of research on their genes to end up in the hands of Japan Tobacco. Cancer research must not be controlled by companies who make cancer-causing products. Patents on genes make immoral deals like this more likely and more damaging."

In June 1999, the Corixa Corporation granted Japan Tobacco a 3-year exclusive licence to develop and sell vaccine products aimed at preventing or treating lung cancer in North America, Japan and many other countries (3,4). The potential vaccines are based on Corixa’s sequencing of human genes from lung cancer cells.

Since 1998, Corixa has filed 6 world patents relating to lung cancer diagnosis and therapy. The patents include claims for human gene sequences from lung cancer cells (5). If granted, the gene patents will allow Corixa to prevent other companies and researchers from developing or marketing other methods of diagnosing, preventing or treating lung cancer which rely on these genes for at least 20 years.

A similar 1998 deal with Cell Genesys gives Japan Tobacco sole marketing rights to its genetically engineered cancer vaccine in Japan, Taiwan and Korea, and joint marketing rights elsewhere (6). The deal could be worth up to $80 million if the vaccine successfully completes clinical trials.

UK company British Biotech has also received past payments from Japan Tobacco towards development of a genetically engineered treatment for heart attacks and strokes (7).

Tobacco accounts for around 90% of lung cancer in countries where smoking has been common for several decades (8).

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For further information, please contact:

Dr Helen Wallace (GeneWatch UK) on +44 (0)1298 871898 or mobile: +44 (0)7903 311584.

Clive Bates (ASH) +44 (0)207 739 5902.

Notes to editors:

  1. GeneWatch UK Briefing, "Biotech deals put lung cancer vaccine hopes in the hands of Japan Tobacco", November 2001, available on Briefing.pdf. Guardian article on
  2. Japan Tobacco is the world’s third largest tobacco company and makes 3 of the world’s top 5 cigarette brands: Camel, Mild Seven and Winston. The company diversified into pharmaceuticals in 1987 although its core business remains tobacco. and
  3. US biotech company Corixa is based in Seattle. See Corixa press release, 16 June 1999, and Corixa 1999 Annual Report. Corixa made $1.6m from the deal in 1999 and received a further $1m milestone payment from Japan Tobacco in July 2001.
  4. The licence excludes Europe, the former Soviet Union, Argentina, Brazil and Columbia, which are covered by another exclusive licence granted by Corixa to an Italian pharmaceutical company (Zambon Group). Japan Tobacco and Zambon Group have been given a co-exclusive licence to develop and sell lung cancer vaccine products in China.
  5. The world patents are: WO0100828, WO0065053, WO0061612, WO0060077, WO9947674, WO9938973. In April this year, Corixa was granted a US patent which claims the potential lung cancer vaccine methods although not the gene sequences.
  6. Cell Genesys Press Release, 5 April 1999, The deal covers the use of Cell Genesys’ GVAX cancer vaccine for both prostate and lung cancer. Marketing rights in the US are excluded (retained by Cell Genesys). In this case, the genes themselves are not patented.
  7. British Biotech Press Release, 30 June 1999.
  8. Information on tobacco and health on

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