The gene scene

By Aida Sadr

While the commodification of life seems like somewhat of an offensive notion to most people, the reality is that living organisms and their cellular components have been objects of commerce for a couple of decades now. Since 1980, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that scientists could patent living material, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has awarded numerous patents on various organism’s genes and on genetically modified plants and animals themselves. Of course, no one really seemed to care all that much until the genes for which the biotechnology companies and research institutions requested patents belonged to a human.

According to the current (and recently amended) patenting guidelines, companies can patent a human gene if they can prove a credible, specific and substantial use for it. Biotech companies such as Myriad Genetics, Rockville, Celera Genomics and Human Genome Sciences Inc. are all wealthy competitors in the patenting race. Each multi-million dollar enterprise hopes to identify as many useful genes as possible since they stand to benefit substantially from any new diagnostic test, drug or therapy that is developed using "their" gene.

Opponents of gene patents argue genes are discoveries of nature, not inventions, and are therefore not patentable. The standard response to this argument is that researcher’s efforts to locate, characterize, and determine the role of the gene elevates the discovery to the status of an invention. Of course, one could always argue that although many scientists worked hard to find and characterize the elements in the periodic table, no one "owns" any of them.

The second argument opponents offer is patents could potentially restrict research in particular areas and inhibit progress in medical research. For example, a coalition of women’s and genetic rights groups crusading against Myriads’ ownership of nine patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes associated with breast cancer worry that the fee other researchers must pay to study the genes will deter them, slowing the search for treatments.

Companies dismiss these accusations, and claim they make patented genes available to academic researchers at no cost since the patent only prevents the unauthorized use of the gene for commercial purposes. Of course, this is rather convenient for companies since they can use the researchers’ findings, supplied to them for free, to develop commercial products.

The main argument proponents of gene patenting offers is the scientific process is limited by gene patenting. They claim patents provide an incentive for companies to invest in research. Considering Myriad has spent an estimated $5 million to $10 million on researching BRCA1/2, one might conclude companies would not invest so heavily if they were deprived of an incentive. Of course, if all research projects were publicly funded, this would not be a concern but the likelihood of that happening anytime soon are… well, none.

While I have trouble refuting the "profit motive" argument, I feel uneasy conceding that allowing companies to patent genes is our only realistic option. Perhaps this is because of my ideals of autonomy and my moral objection to the idea of someone "owning" the building blocks that make up humankind. Unfortunately, such arguments are not as convincing as dollars and cents.

However, perhaps what makes me the most uncomfortable is that somewhere along the way, companies started patenting human genes and the general public got to say very little about it. We are in the midst of a genetic revolution and we have the right to evaluate its social and biological implications so that we can democratically guide its applications. Otherwise, our autonomy may be jeopardized altogether.

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