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mattbrowne's avatar

Patenting of human genes is a huge scandal - How can you patent nature - Should US citizens pay royalties to Italy for Columbus discovering the continent?

Asked by mattbrowne (31640points) March 26th, 2009

Who owns the human genetic code? I think no one does. It’s part of nature like gravity or chemical elements like nitrogen. But the reality in the US is very different at the moment. It is only after a DNA product is isolated, purified, or modified that a patent is considered. Over three million gene related patents have been applied for in the United States alone. The major legal issues are themselves a great topic of controversy because there hasn’t yet been a clear definition of what exactly can and cannot be patented. What is your opinion about human gene patenting

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14 Answers

marinelife's avatar

I agree with you. This was a deal with the devil. In return for pushing ahead the research without proper government funding, we sold our souls.

I am not sure what we do about it now, but it is a mess. Some much-needed drugs are not coming to market, because companies that own the delivery mechanism will not license to others who have the solution.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Marina – It’s interesting to observe how American companies active in Europe are facing different legal interpretation.

marinelife's avatar

@mattbrowne I haven’t read much about that. Do you have a good, concise article?

nikipedia's avatar

What do you mean “patent human genes”? I’ve never heard of this and I don’t see how that’s possible or even useful. Patenting something like a particular transgenic mouse, on the other hand, represents years of work and distinct intellectual property.

fireinthepriory's avatar

I think that patents causing research/testing/treatment of human disease to be expensive or impossible are morally wrong.

The real problem is (or will be, when this actually comes to the courts) is that it’s hard to draw a line saying what can or cannot be patented, biologically. Lines get very blurry when you’re talking about genes vs. gene products vs. regulatory sequences of genes… I’m not sure the article Marina linked really got it when they said that “misinterpretation” of Supreme Court rulings made this possible. Biological matter can legally be patented so long as it’s been modified or purified or if the gene product/function was know. Therefore, animal genes are able to be patented if you discover what they do, and humans are animals. Before the human genome was sequenced, this mostly wasn’t a big deal (in terms of human medicine, anyway).

So if we want to regulate the patenting of genes, there is a huge host of questions that follow in trying to parse out what is necessary to “protect.” Are animal genes still fair game even though you’ll be able to find homologues of every human gene you want? Would you not be able to patent a primer that you invented if someone finds that exact sequence in the human genome? (Which is not a long shot, by the way, with 6 billion DNA base pairs in one human’s genome.) Will only coding regions be out-of-bounds for patenting? If so, what about regulatory sequences, which have been shown to be even more important in many cases? The list goes on.

Basically it’s going to be nearly impossible to flesh out a good set of rules that enforce what we might be able to morally say is “the right thing.” Any laws that are made, there will be a loophole in the language and someone will figure out a way to make a really big, immoral buck on someone else’s unfortunate combination of genes…

marinelife's avatar

That is why I think the whole area should be out of bounds for patents. No one invented it. No one owns it. Like space. Like the oceans beyond the 12 mile limit.

fireinthepriory's avatar

@Marina – I’m not sure you totally understood me. I disagree with your statement “In return for pushing ahead the research without proper government funding, we sold our souls.” The improperly thought-out laws are what lead to these problems. I don’t think the government was seeking out or utilizing enough scientific knowledge to make this laws governing this kind of research, which is why the laws don’t reflect the current technology and we’re having so many problems with all these negative consequences to human health.

Genes may not have been invented by the people researching them, but it would be ridiculous and counterproductive to totally ignore scientists’ contributions also. No one would do this kind of research if it wasn’t economically sustainable for them. Granted, making billions off patenting a “lucrative” human gene like BRCA is ludicrous, but being unable to fund your own research because you can’t patent your work is, too. There will have to be some kind of compromise in the future wherein the patients aren’t screwed, but the scientists who spent billions of dollars and years of their lives doing the research to invent the gene therapies or other treatments aren’t screwed, either.

marinelife's avatar

@fireinthepriory “No one would do this kind of research if it wasn’t economically sustainable for them.” Right, it should have been funded as pure research by a government or governments.

fireinthepriory's avatar

@Marina Ahh! Ok. I was confused by your comments about selling of souls to the devil and such, I thought you were saying that doing non-government approved research was… I don’t know! Wrong or something. (Religious imagery always throws me off, I’m sorry. I will try to avoid that pitfall in the future!)

So in this case, I totally agree with you. The government needs to better inform itself and fund the research that will help people. I have high hopes, seeing Pres. Obama’s scientific advisory positions being filled with actual credible (in most cases) scientists! It’s a step in the right direction, especially if he listens to them!

mattbrowne's avatar

@Marina – Here’s a snippet from an article I found:

“The BRCA1 patents illustrate the risks of ‘ownership’ of a gene sequence and have evoked strong reactions in Europe. Most importantly, these gene patents may create a precedent. Hundreds of patent applications on genes have been filed over the last few years. If not stopped, monopolies on genes and genetic testing may wreck existing and well-functioning reimbursement systems and will negatively influence healthcare all over Europe. The European Patent Convention (EPC) allows a democratic control on patenting via an opposition procedure. In October 2001, a French association of research institutes and hospitals, and a coalition of the Belgian, Dutch, British, Danish and German genetic societies opposed the first patent (EP-B-699754). For the opposition against the second patent (EP-B-705903) in February 2002, the Belgian and Dutch governments joined the latter group.”


marinelife's avatar

@mattbrowne Thanks. I wish the US had even that modicum of protection against the private human genome.

susanc's avatar

The U.S. should pay Italy royalties for tiramisu.

mattbrowne's avatar

@susanc – And pizza. It would probably make Italy the richest country in the world ;-)

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