Thursday, May 14, 2009

Who owns your genes?

Well, you might be surprised who owns your genes. The ACLU published an article yesterday in their Daily Kos diary that began,

Today the ACLU and the Public Patent Foundation filed a lawsuit challenging the U.S. government’s practice of granting patents on human genes – specifically, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which are associated with breast and ovarian cancer... At this point, 20 percent of the human genome has been patented.
Besides the immediate shock – surprise and disbelief – I wondered what the ACLU's angle was, what claims in particular they made in their lawsuit. On what grounds could they contest the practice?

The ACLU released a statement from their President, Anthony D. Romero, found here, that contains this compelling point: "Knowledge about our own bodies and the ability to make decisions about our health care are some of our most personal and fundamental rights." Perhaps, then, it is a privacy issue, a nebulous right not expressly defined in the Constitution, but often believed to exist. Instead, the ACLU is actually attacking this practice on the grounds that it infringes free speech:
We believe this is a gross violation of First Amendment rights: individuals’ rights to know about their own genetic makeup, doctors’ rights to provide their patients with crucial medical information, and scientists’ rights to study the human genome and develop new treatments and genetic tests.
The magazine Wired also covered the story. I found this to be a good quote, but not a free speech concern:
“All identifying of differences, including those that are found in the future by anyone to correlate with an increased risk of cancer, are patented. Myriad did not create any of the differences found in the genes. Nature did,” said the suit, referencing patent holder Myriad Genetics of Salt Lake City.
Again, from Wired: "Myriad, which had issued a cease-and-desist order to Yale University scientists researching the genes, said it would prevail in the case."

Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 is written to protect intellectual property. It reads: "To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." Not a patent lawyer, but suing a world-class research university to stop them from exploring something that's inside many people by nature, I don't think, promotes the progress of science.

1 comment:

David said...

I just published a book on the subject, entitled "Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your genes" I have given numerous talks on the subject and remain astounded by how few people know this is going on. I am skeptical about the First Amendment argument, but believe the other arguments are so correct they could not fail, unless the courts are motivated by prevailing corporate interests rather than justice. My book is available at major bookstores and on Amazon and gives some more history and detail about the practice, and its leal and ethical errors.