Slowing The Cure For Cancer

In a lawsuit filed yesterday in federal district court (S.D.N.Y.), the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the patents on two human genomes linked to breast and ovarian cancer.  The patents give the private company Miriad exclusive rights to perform diagnostic tests on genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 and to prevent any other researcher from even looking at these genes without first getting permission from Miriad.  Mutations of these genes are thought to be responsible for most hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

The suit, filed on behalf of breast cancer and women’s health groups, individual women, and research groups representing about 150,000 scientists, argues that the patents currently held on these genes stymie medical research and stand in the way of a cure for some of the most lethal forms of breast and ovarian cancer.  According to the ACLU, granting these kinds of monolithic patents violates the First Amendment by limiting scientific research the free flow of information.  If successful the suit will render these patents invalid.

The impact of such an outcome could be staggering.  Private companies currently hold patents on about 20% of all human genes.  Of those genes patented, many have been linked to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, asthma, muscular dystrophy, and colon cancer.  The result of those patents is to place a price, usually thousands of dollars, on access to those genes for research and/or testing.  Patients forgo second opinions because the costs associated with genetic testing, and scientists find their efforts to unlock the mysteries of cancer simply too expensive to pursue.  Therefore the patent holder, in this case Miriad, is the lead if not sole researcher/developer for medical treatments and developments. 

Patents are designed to protect original works of intellectual property, not those things that are naturally occurring, like elements and minerals.  Human genes are not invented by these companies, they are identified.  Genes lack the essential element of all intellectual property– originality of authorship.  By patenting a gene like BRCA1, Miriad claims original source and ownership– that is, without Miriad the gene wouldn’t exist.  At a theoretical level such a proposition is offensive regardless of your personal understanding of human creation and evolution.  

At the practical level such a proposition is lethal.   

photo courtesy of Windfairy via Flickr

12 comments

Alfred D.
Past Member 7 years ago

Whatever the roghts and wrongs of who paid for what the holding of apatent and holding back further research which will improve this gnome is moraly wrong and this company ought to be ashamed to even this action.Peoples lives are at stake.

Lars K.
Lars K.7 years ago

Jeffrey, you're a victim of the misconception that Big Pharma are real concerned about your health and mine.
But the only way they're concerned about our health is they want to make us profitable by making us sick and miserable enough to buy their products. Until you realize this, you will continue to be a victim instead of a winner.

Glenna Jones-kachtik
Glenna Kachtik7 years ago

Jeffrey,
The pharmaceutical companies in countries where they have a 1 payer system felt the same way. They complained loudly and bitterly that they would not have the money for research and that the Country would fall behind others - you know what? That particular problem has not materialized.
I know that we are in love with free trade - but the incentive for greed is just too great - anywhere. We have spent trillions of dollars on all the cancers, alhtizmers, parkinsons and all the other dieseases and there are still no cures. Everytime we turn on the TV there is another telethon. I am not dumb enough to believe that money is not needed to find cures - nor am I stingy and not donating to these pleas; but the idea that big companies should "own" this stuff is just wrong. Scientists are looking for cures to be sure - Companies are only looking to up their bottom lines and enrich their stockholders. There is so much medical espionage going on that it would make most people's head spin.
My worry is that big companies will worry more about the profits they make from finding this cure than they will about the cure itself. It should be government and private industry funded and research should be freely shared. Working together creates cures.

Jeffrey W.
Jeffrey W.7 years ago

Obviously, the right to develop treatments from a genome can be owned. It's that ownership that you are complaining about.

And every one of you has missed the point that without the huge investment to identify that genome's relationship to that cancer, nobody would be able to develop the cure. And without the ownership of that right to development, nobody would ever make the investment that found it.

The fact is, free enterprise did find that genome's relationship, and free enterprise now fuels the development of a cure. Works pretty well, really.

Carol H.
Past Member 7 years ago

Everything is bottom line can just imagine how many doctors would lose their jobs?

Glenna Jones-kachtik
Glenna Kachtik7 years ago

A genome can't be owned. It is not intellectual property. Science is meant to be discovery and you must use the work of others to discover. How will it slow research down if others have access to the genomes?
Research companies tend to get greedy. Soon, they are just working for the money, the prestige, the fame...
This is the same thing with pharmaceutical companies - take Singualair for instance. There is a generic form of it; but only some hospital pharmacies (and probably the VA) can bargain for it and get it. My last monteklaust prescription at a University Hospital pharmacy with my CareLink card $2.00 for a 30 day supply. At Costco (which is great on most prescriptions) a 30 day supply of Singulair? $116.32. Now, tell me how that is fair?
We need a cure for cancer and all the other diseases mentioned - it makes sense that this should not be just farmed out to 1 company or 2 guys... I think the opposite would be true if the ACLU wins; That cures might come about faster.

Shirley H.
Shirley H.7 years ago

Sounds to me like GREED is playing a big factor here.
Shirley H.

Carl Mumm
Carl Mumm7 years ago

The fact is, cancer is caused by carcinogens, not genes. It is certainly true that these companies are claiming ownership of things that have no right to be owned. However, even people with a stake in believing genes are responsible for cancer, the researchers and "owners," themselves, admit that these genes may be responsible for a fraction of cancer cases, usually much less than 10% in any given area of the body. But the science that insists on even these small numbers is flawed. We need to reread Rachael Carson and pin the blame of this preventative escalation of cancers where it belongs: on industry and its toxins.

Carl Mumm
Carl Mumm7 years ago

The fact is, cancer is caused by carcinogens, not genes. It is certainly true that these companies are claiming ownership of things that have no right to be owned. However, even people with a stake in believing genes are responsible for cancer, the researchers and "owners," themselves, admit that these genes may be responsible for a fraction of cancer cases, usually much less than 10% in any given area of the body. But the science that insists on even these small numbers is flawed. We need to reread Rachael Carson and pin the blame of this preventative escalation of cancers where it belongs: on industry and its toxins.

Paula O'malley
Paula O'Malley7 years ago

As stated in the article, patents are only meant to protect intellectual property. I completely agree that a company or individual should have control over their own ideas. However, to lay claim to the actual genes discovered is simply ludicrous. If Sir Isaac Newton had patented his discovery of "gravity" and the world was denied the ability to run experiments on it's nature, the world would have lost some of it's most technological advances. How would airplanes have come to be? Honestly, if the discovery of genes in the human body gives someone ownership over them, and can deny the world the ability to study them, how can we honestly say that we have control over our own person. I believe this concept is not only morally objectionable, but also dangerous. Honestly, how dare someone tell me I cannot investigate the workings of my own body, my own cells? Who made these people God?