nos-trum. pronunciation: \nos'-trum\. noun. Etymology: Latin, neuter of noster our, ours.
1. a medicine of secret composition recommended by its preparer but usually without scientific proof of its effectiveness.
2. a usually questionable remedy or scheme.
See here for more discussion.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Can My Genes Be Patented?

No, says a federal judge in New York.  Genes are a "product of nature."

This ruling is a big deal.  The average person reading this would probably think...duh.

But the company who patented the genes argued that they developed a proprietary process to isolate and purify the genes in question.  Second, the genes in question aren't normal ones:  they are the familial genes that place women at increased risk for breast cancer:  BRCA1 and BRCA2.  Third, the US Patent Office has issued patents already for about 20% of the human genome.

Gets stickier, doesn't it?  Throw in the ever-interested ACLU, who argued that granting patents for genes allows the company (Myriad Genetics) "a monopoly on genetic testing for these risk factors" that could keep commercial costs very high for years.

Let's break this down.

1.  My genes.  Do I own them?
2.  The process for producing the genes.  Does the company own that, and is it separate from owning the genes they produce?
3.  Does it make a difference if the genes are present in only some people, and are faulty, disease-producing genes?
4.  Is the gene (BRCA) a "product" of nature or a "defect" in nature's work? 
5.  Did the company "create" something new by producing pure genes that are not otherwise available?
6.  Is there something wrong with having sole right to profit from a biochemical product that happens to be a gene that only you could produce?
7.  A gene is an just an organic chemical.  Does it have special status by virtue of the genetic code it contains?  Olive oil is an organic chemical, too.

You can see there are a lot questions to answer.  Put on your thinking caps:  I'm interested in your comments on items in the list.  My personal opinion is settled on only the first two:

Yes, I own my genes.  I don't want somebody marketing my genetic makeup (one of me is enough).
Yes, a company should own the process they develop, but what that process makes is not necessarily the company's  (If a company finds a new way to make gasoline, they can't patent gasoline).

By the way, the US Patent Office was sued as a part of this case.  The judge dropped them from the suit.

Lastly, just for fun, consider this:  I make a "gene" from pieces of other genes.  It doesn't exist in nature--as far as we know--but it could.  And my research shows that if it appears in a person it would cause a disease, maybe.  Can I patent that?


Anonymous said...

Didn't they already do that in the movie "the Blob'? They made a lot of money and the movie is still showned today!
This does set up questions for me. How will the new Health Care Program respond to this issue?
Will they just form ANOTHER panel to decide?

Doc D said...

On page 2324 of the HC law, it says that the Secretary of HHS will form an advisory committee to tell physicians when they should refer women with breast cancer risk to a geneticist. (I thought they weren't going to come in-between a doctor and the patient?). But there's nothing here about genes and patents, specifically. D

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