The Supreme Court is set to make a landmark decision this month, a ruling that affects us all and will essentially determine ‘who owns’ the human genome. The case concerns the patenting of genes. Human genes. And though the issue is now front and center, it is far from new. As a matter of fact, over the past 30 years more than 40,000 gene patents have been created and accepted. Around 20% of your genes are actually patented by major corporations and universities.
And that’s being admitted and found out by mainstream news groups like National Geographic.
Let’s break down the significance here. Patents are seen as a claim of ownership or rights, and they are normally applied to inventions. Throughout the last century, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that patents do not apply to products and laws of nature, as Sandra S. Park with the ACLU says. She told US News:
“When scientists identify something in nature, like an element or a gene, they deserve wide recognition. But what they find should belong to the public storehouse of knowledge, not be locked up by one company for its exclusive use.”
Shockingly, however, more than 20% of the human genome is already patented.
How have companies like Myriad Genetics (at the center of the current Supreme Court case) gotten away with such patents? As we have covered in the past here on NaturalSociety, if an individual can find, isolate, change, and develop a “useful” application for the gene, they can patent the sequence. The harm in this is a basic “disregard for humanity.”
Basically, if a company can patent genes and then use this “property” to alter existing animals (or even people), the company would have an argument to their ownership of the living being.
In the shorter term, the effects of gene patenting can already be seen with the two genes at the center of the Myriad case: BRCA1 and BRCA2. Everyone has these two genes, but in some people they are mutated and this mutation can lead to an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Because Myriad has patented these genes, they dictate the type of testing used to discover the gene mutations in people. In other words, Myriad determines how much one person will pay to find out if they have this mutation. Though scientists have developed genetic testing technology that would allow every person to have their entire genetic makeup sequenced (all 23,000 genes) for about $1,000, Myriad’s patents stop that from happening. To add insult to injury, they charge about $4,000 for someone to be tested for only BRCA1 and BRCA2.
So, gene patents are already impacting our health negatively. And allowed to continue, there is really no end in sight to what may come of the corporate ownership of your genes.