February 14

Someone else owns one fifth of your genes

5  comments

Author Michael Crichton wrote a disturbing editorial piece in today’s New York Times. Apparently private entities can obtain patents on genes. That’s right. A gene that is part of you or me can be patented. Why is this a big deal? Because

You, or someone you love, may die because of a gene patent that should never have been granted in the first place. Sound far-fetched? Unfortunately, it’s only too real.
Gene patents are now used to halt research, prevent medical testing and keep vital information from you and your doctor. Gene patents slow the pace of medical advance on deadly diseases. And they raise costs exorbitantly: a test for breast cancer that could be done for $1,000 now costs $3,000.
Why? Because the holder of the gene patent can charge whatever he wants, and does. Couldn’t somebody make a cheaper test? Sure, but the patent holder blocks any competitor’s test. He owns the gene. Nobody else can test for it. In fact, you can’t even donate your own breast cancer gene to another scientist without permission. The gene may exist in your body, but it’s now private property.

The article describes several horror stories on profiteering from what should basically be a part of our own bodies.

Humans share mostly the same genes. The same genes are found in other animals as well. Our genetic makeup represents the common heritage of all life on earth. You can’t patent snow, eagles or gravity, and you shouldn’t be able to patent genes, either. Yet by now one-fifth of the genes in your body are privately owned.

Crichton reports that two congressmen have sponsored a bill to allow us to benefit from the full decoded genome that is basically us.

Last Friday, Xavier Becerra, a Democrat of California, and Dave Weldon, a Republican of Florida, sponsored the Genomic Research and Accessibility Act, to ban the practice of patenting genes found in nature. Mr. Becerra has been careful to say the bill does not hamper invention, but rather promotes it. He’s right. This bill will fuel innovation, and return our common genetic heritage to us. It deserves our support.

Let’s hope this one doesn’t die on the vine.


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  1. This is one of the most disturbing practices on earth. If you haven’t seen “The Future of Food” try to. I was able to download it from Google but the file is gone. There are some pieces of it up there. http://www.thefutureoffood.com/index.htm
    Monsanto has something like 11,000 seed patents. They are marketing their patented “round up ready” crops and then suing farmers that are caught with Monsanto’s genes in their fields. Scary stuff. Life should not be patentable.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgWa-A3-x_Y
    http://www.percyschmeiser.com/
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/14/business/14crop.htm
    Hi George–
    Agreed!  Thanks for the links.
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  2. A fine example of capitalism at work. My only real complaint with capitalism is how it has replaced Democracy in this country. I fully understand the benefits of it, I am just disgusted by it’s grip on our gov’t.
    And yet a bipartisain bill looks to break it’s grip on our genome! I am TOTALLY surprised, I thought for sure someone would have paid someone else to make sure that bill never got written. I am sure someone will get paid to kill it.
    Hi David–
    Capitalism hasn’t replaced democracy in the US.  They co-exist side by side.  They are apples and oranges.  One is a political system, the other an economic system.

    Let’s hope the bill gets killed somehow.
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  3. It’s amazing what this country continues to allow. As a software developer, I deal with the threat of absurd patents all the time, but at least a case can be made for some of them. No case can be made for patents on genes, and it’s a perversion even worse than the game played by drug companies to extend patents on major drugs by running through bogus patents on packaging, delivery mechanisms, etc.
    Hi hap–
    Agreed 100%
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  4. Crichton’s knowledge of patent law is spotty, but he’s on the right side of the debate. For a more detailed discussion, please see my blog.
    Hi Andrew–
    Interesting.  Thanks for the link.
    Best–
    MRE 

  5. ” Monsanto has something like 11,000 seed patents. They are marketing their patented “round up ready” crops and then suing farmers that are caught with Monsanto’s genes in their fields.”
    Has the world gone mad?? Surely the farmers, or someone on their behalf should be able to sue Monsanto for allowing their genes to escape and contaminate the farmers crops??
    Hi Neil–
    Where the legal profession is concerned – at least in the US – it does seem that the world has gone mad.
    MRE 

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