040410 Licensed for Your DNA: The battle over the right to patent the human code
DNA from PBS
A patent, traditionally, is protection for a design or process which insures that the originator is rewarded for her or his innovation.
In the 1960s interest began to develop in patenting living organisms. By the 1980s, the U.S. Supreme court affirmed that corporations could, indeed, patent living organisms. Genetically altered foods, such as the corn often used in the high fructose corn syrup we eat, are patented genetic organisms, and there are many more, even some higher vertebrates.
Indeed, much of the human genome is mapped, and many corporations in the U.S. and abroad have also patented portions of the human genome. Patenting the human genome is big business, and it means more big business.
Judge Robert Sweet
Recently, a Federal judge in New York, United States District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet, denied that corporations, specifically Myriad Genetics, could patent something that was created by a living organism, in this case, human cancer genes.
The suit was brought by cancer victims, medical organizations, the ACLU, and the Public Patent Foundation at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. The suit claimed that allowing corporations to patent human DNA, and indeed, anything created by living creatures, prevented research and allowed corporations to unfairly profit from nature, and from humans.
Very likely, the judge is going to be overturned. Major news media have reported that, if upheld, the ruling will effect a number of major drug and genetics corporations.
If upheld. It won’t be, and if it is, likely we’ll see legislation on the matter.
What’s at stake.
Corporations, and universities, are betting big on tinkering with human DNA. The pay off is huge: why not cure yourself and your future generations from asthma, mental illness, or cancer? Indeed, why not cure your offspring of baldness, or big ears, or femaleness? Technically, pretty much any change will be possible if genetic research continues as it is.
Those who wish to patent further DNA insist that research costs money. Some research never pays anything; some is made obsolete before it is finished. Without being able to patent procedures and drugs derived from human DNA, progress will be stifled.
Opponents suggest otherwise. They suggest that if DNA sequences were freely available it would stimulate research. Ownership of sequences allows corporations to sit on some while it builds products for others.
Still others claim that the code for human DNA is already owned by God, but that doesn’t seem to be a compelling argument, since God apparently leaves the courtroom after the oath.
There are other possible problems with allowing the licensing of DNA, once a person received treatment, they might seriously have to have a license from the patent holder to reproduce. If that seems far-fetched, realize that major agricultural corporations have successfully prevented poor farmers in India from saving and replanting seed, and filed suit when a farmer’s crop showed signs of contamination from genetically modified crops, and prevented the farmer from selling his seed since it contained their genetics.
Some larger issues are at stake. DNA and the simpler RNA are virtually the basic building blocks of life. It has been well demonstrated that bacteria trade these basic building blocks without engaging in sexual reproduction, and that viruses leave bits of DNA and RNA in the host. Our idea of human reproduction requires a male and a female, but it is uncertain what other organisms have contributed to our genetics.
It is an over-simplified understanding of how DNA transcription and reproduction works to say that someday humans might accidentally become part mouse. It isn’t an oversimplification to say that, if there are enough recombined DNA floating about, some mutations might happen, and where they might happen and what the results would be are completely unpredictable.
When the atomic and the hydrogen bombs were being tested, some people feared the chain reaction might not stop with one bomb, that the atoms in the earth might begin to fuse or split and all earth might blow up. That hasn’t happened, but there are plausible scenarios that suggest that if all the nuclear weapons on earth were detonated, something like that might happen, that the atmosphere might begin to rapidly react. Similar fears of rogue recombinant human DNA that might be transmitted via hosts like viruses or even mosquitoes might be unreasonable if there are only a few, or even a few thousand recombinant strains, but what if there are hundreds of thousands?
The Past is Future
Technology, in the hands of corporations and drug companies, first saved hundreds of thousands of lives with antibiotics and vaccines, but now there is a growing backlash among the micro world, and diseases like TB and Staph are becoming resistant and increasingly difficult to treat. The backlash against vaccines is slower in coming, but likely it will appear in RNA viruses, probably influenza, which can evolve faster than we can find new vaccines.
Would there be a similar, perhaps more horrifying result to casual tinkering with human DNA? Once a corporation has invested in, and discovered, re-sequencing technology, shall we believe ethics will keep it from being exploited?
Managing the Risks
We do want genetic fixes for serious diseases, but at what risk? Should there be a public discussion on who owns our genes, and what they can do with them? Should there be a discussion on what the likely outcomes will be two, four and ten generations down the line?
We think there is enough motivation for proper research of the human genome without giving the ownership rights to corporations. We think genetic modification should be overseen wherever it appears, and there isn’t proper oversight now. While government ownership of sequences and government regulation and oversight of genetic modification projects seems a poor choice, letting the industry police itself is even worse.
What We’ll See
If Judge Sweet’s ruling isn’t simply overturned, we’ll see a battle of heroic proportions take place over the ownership and use of human DNA, or any DNA from a living thing.
Enjoy an intelligent discussion here
The Human Genome, borrowed from HERE: