Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Banning the absurd practice of patenting genes found in nature, including the human ones

Imagine that, after making a thorough study of snow, you were able to get a patent on its structure. You would really love winter, when the big snowstorms sweep through the West and Midwest and huge snowdrifts pile up in New York from the lake effect storms. Year after year, anyone removing snow would be making use of the physical properties of the white stuff that you patented. They would have to license the technology from you, and you would be one very rich meteorological entrepreneur.

Sound absurd? Of course -- but not much more so than the patenting of human genes, which are not human inventions, after all, but features of the natural world. Author Michael Crichton who comes off like a true member of the lunatic fringe when debunking global warming. But even Crichton can be right sometimes. He's on solid ground when he addresses this absurdity in the NYT.
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.
Everybody is trying to fence in and protect their intellectual property these days. But this isn't a fence, it's a brick wall -- sealing off the border between sense and nonsense, and trapping us all on the other side. How did it ever get put up?
This bizarre situation has come to pass because of a mistake by an underfinanced and understaffed government agency. The United States Patent Office misinterpreted previous Supreme Court rulings and some years ago began — to the surprise of everyone, including scientists decoding the genome — to issue patents on genes.

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.

The results have been disastrous. Ordinarily, we imagine patents promote innovation, but that’s because most patents are granted for human inventions. Genes aren’t human inventions, they are features of the natural world. As a result these patents can be used to block innovation, and hurt patient care.
Crichton notes that Reps. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) and Dave Weldon (R-FL) have introduced the Genomic Research and Accessibility Act to ban the practice of patenting genes found in nature. Becerra says the bill does not hamper invention, but rather promotes it. There's more information on Becerra's website. While the bill is not retroactive and does not roll back any existing patents, it would stop the practice in the future, and would result in a patent-free genome after the current patents expire 20 years from when they were issued.

1 comment:

Andrew Chin said...

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.