Biology

Patenting People: Should we be able to patent genes?

Patenting People: Should we be able to patent genes?

As the human genome has become better understood, we have uncovered pieces of DNA that are incredibly valuable for human health.  That value has in turn been monetized, which is expected from any good capitalist society.  But is human DNA fair game for capitalistic gain?  Perhaps it is because, at this point in time, there are over 10,000 genes of the human genome that have been patented.  That means that nearly half of the human genes that we know to code for proteins are “owned” by a cooperation.

Does this give you a sinking feeling?…

One specific example of this genetic monopolization is seen in the diagnosis of breast cancer.  When the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 are mutated, the probability of developing a cancerous growth is significantly increased.  Early detection of these genes is essential to pre-emptive action to fight against the spread of cancer.

At this time, the diagnosis of this gene mutation is solely preformed and owned by the organization that had originally discovered the genetic connection, Myriad Genetics.  Consequently, Myriad Genetics is able to charge a hefty fee of 3,000 dollars to any woman who desires the diagnosis.  This is all made possible because of exclusive “patented” rights to the actual genes BRCA1 and BRCA2.  Lets stop and think about this for a moment.  Myriad Genetics had patented people.  Myriad Genetics owned a piece of our DNA.  How can this be?

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I thought all scientists are supposed to be servants of the people?  What ever happened to the that mentality of Dr. Jonas Salk, who said that patenting his polio vaccine would be like, “patenting the sun.”  Dr. Salk felt that it would be immoral to patent something so natural and the accomplishment of lives saved were all the reward he required.  In 2013, it seems this isn’t enough.

But even scientists need to make returns on investments.  The research that was involved in discovering these genes was expensive and time-consuming.  Perhaps without the promise of a patent, many genes would go undiscovered.  There must be some incentive for the best minds of our era to pursue science over investment banking.  Is this monetary incentive is necessary for the advancement of scientific frontiers?  Is this a new era of bio-businessmen?

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It does send a cringe up your spine to think that someone is getting rich off of something that is inherently apart of all of us.  It almost gives you the feeling that a piece of you has been stolen.  BRCA1 and BRCA2 are not some novel inventions and Myriad Genetics did not invent them. These genes have been handed down to us from our ancestors and they are apart of each of our biological compositions.  Instead, this company merely found where in our DNA they exist.

It would be as unconventional for someone to try to patent a human organ.  Whoever discovered the human brain doesn’t get royalties every time someone is diagnosed with a mental disease.  Or even more pertinent is the discovery of DNA itself.  Are Watson and Crick  kicking themselves right now for not patenting the DNA double helix?(and Maurice Wilkins!?)

The Supreme Court agreed that the patent was ludicrous and decided to revoke any royalties or patents Myriad had on the genes.  Instead, they were awarded a patent for their process of diagnosis.  This still gives Myriad an advantage but if another company is able to invent a new way of testing for the genes, the prices of testing should go down with the competition.

The Supreme Court reasoned that natural and pre-existing genetic code was non-patentable.  It is quite possible that one day this ruling might be as pivotal as Roe v. Wade or Marbury v. Madison.  With better understanding of the human genome, giant industries will rely on the use and manipulation of genetic components and these laws will define industries and protect citizens.

And so, the biotech industry gave out a collective sigh of relief after this ruling now that they do not have to worry about being bled to death by royalties.  But what will this do to investments in research and development?  Will these same companies risk investing millions of dollars in genetic research without the reward of large profits protected through patents?  This decision certainly reduces the incentives of large-scale genetic research.

However, eager genetic patenting pioneers did find some wiggle room with this ruling as well.  The Supreme Court did state that altered or engineered genetic code could be patented.  This ruling might hold the most weight for pharmaceutical companies, which splice engineered genes into cell cultures in order to produce drugs.

Should the US allow patents on human genes?

Whatever the long-term effects are, this event hints towards a new era of genetics that will blur the lines of what can and cannot be owned.  But for the time being, the genes belong to the people.

 

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Links:

-60 Minutes special, “Patented Genes”

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