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Why Does the US Grant Patents For Human Genes?

Why Does the US Grant Patents For Human Genes?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the not-for-profit Public Patent Foundation have filed a lawsuit on behalf of over 150,000 geneticists, women’s rights groups, breast cancer organizations, pathologists and others against the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the biopharmaceutical company Myriad Genetics and the University of Utah Research Foundation. The ACLU and others are charging that it is unconstitutional for drug companies to have patents for human genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer.

Approximately 20 percent of human genes are patented, according to the ACLU. This means that only the company with the patent may study or develop tests for genes. The company can charge outrageous prices for genetic tests; Myriad Genetics currently charges over $3000 for women to test whether their genes are more susceptible to breast or ovarian cancer. In addition, women do not have the option of obtaining a second opinion, which is particularly important when tests come back as inconclusive.

Although the focus of this case is on the genes associated with breast and ovarian cancer, patents exist for genes linked to Alzheimer’s disease, muscular dystrophy, colon cancer, asthma, among others.

Executive Director of the ACLU Anthony D. Romero contends, “Knowledge about our own bodies and the ability to make decisions about our health care are some of our most personal and fundamental rights…Moreover, granting patents that limit scientific research, learning and the free flow of information violates the First Amendment.” 

Get full details of the case, including exactly who is joining the fight at the ACLU’s website.

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5 comments

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12:17PM PDT on May 26, 2009

I am a scientist and hold a number of national and international patents myself. I truly believe that patenting of some technologies by the companies that spend money on research is warranted. This is to protect their investment and to let them reap monetary benefits which in principle help initiate future research. However, there are some technology areas, such as those related to human genome and the prior knowledge of the physical sciences, which must be in public domain since they either occur in nature or have been known and practiced by scientists for decades. As far as I know, the US Patent Office requires a clear proof that the technology is novel, to deem it patentable. However, the problem with the concept of novelty is that it is fuzzy and hence is not easy to demonstrate or assess. That is why, most patent applications even if they lack novelty become granted patents.

If you have not read the great Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller “NEXT”, please read it when you get a chance. If time is at a premium, then at least read the write-up on this story in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Next_(novel). While like most Crichton stories this story is a mixture of fiction and some fact, it does address a number of issues related to biotechnology and its patenting. Wikipedia article also describes the impact of this book on public policy in that the story led to the introduction of a bill in the congress to ban future gene patents and abolish the

3:03PM PDT on May 23, 2009

I'm sorry, I didn't mean to infringe on your patent by recreating your gene inside me.

7:27AM PDT on May 22, 2009

We are all slaves to science and the goverment.

5:44AM PDT on May 22, 2009

No patents for genetic material. Stop now. This is pure Greed and sounds like confusion between reality and science fiction.
Please do not make slaves of our genes. Charging outrageous prices for testing is adding insult to injury. Don't torture potential or present patients. Remember and bring back the meaning of HUMANITY.
I Miller

5:01AM PDT on May 22, 2009

can you imagine the windfall this will be for drug companies.. the sky will not limit the money they can charge for any of the chemo drugs they develop and as they will OWN the GENOME, any other drug company developing a drug will have to pay the those with the patent.. VERY BAD NEWS.... FOR PATIENTS...

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