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Patenting Genes: Who Owns This Body?
Jennifer Borgerding
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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The implications of tampering with human genes are innumerable. Not only are there problems dealing with aspects of religion and privacy but also of protection. How does one receive full credit for a discovery without restricting the flow of information? The debate of whether or not it is right to patent human genes or organisms is fierce, and Wil S. Hylton, author of the article "Who Owns This Body?" and Michael J Reiss, author of the article "The Ethics in Patenting DNA" explore many sides of the argument. And although views and facts are voiced, a patent should still not give anyone the legal right to exploit and/or benefit from someone else's body.

To understand the implications better, it is best to start from the first major break-through. For example, no scientist completely knew the building blocks of life "It took Jim Watson and his partner, Francis Crick, to figure out that DNA mattered"(Hylton 110). So, it then was known why people have the specific features they do. Now the trick was to better understand the order of the nucleotides within the DNA. Along with his new discovery, Watson realized that it "…carried certain risks, however, the most obvious of which was that the order of nucleotides could be tinkered with, changing a person's genetic instruction and thereby rearranging his or her body or mind" (Hylton 111). Watson knew the responsibilities and restraints would be a heavy load on the backs of genetic researchers. Although he was quick to voice his caution, Watson was mostly ignored by others who were enchanted with the new field of science he had introduced. Furthermore, Watson did turn away form his work on the human genome but returned 22 years later to accept a challenging task that, up to then, no one had accepted due to its complexity and the time it would consume: mapping the human genome. "Standing before Congress in 1987, he received a hero's welcome and a starting budget of $30 million to launch the Human Genome Project, a new division of the National Institute of Health," (Hylton 112). Even though the project was off to an excellent start, it was doomed to have troubles because Watson could not ignore the foreseeable commercializing of human DNA. In the end Watson lost to big business, NIH, and his colleague, Craig Venter, in the pursuit of a different approach to mapping the genome.

Hylton, throughout his article, asserted the slippery slope that led up to all of this disagreement. For example, in 1930, a Plant Patent Act was proposed to congress. The bill received much dispute because, "This was about more that just plants, after all. At heart, it was about patenting life, and that required some consideration," (Hylton 116). But congress wanted to recompense those who developed new strains of plants, so the act passed. In addition, anyone who kept up with this news could see that it was the beginnings of a downward trend in terms of gene patents. "…a scientist from General Electric showed up at the U.S. Parent and Trademark Office with an application for a bacterium from the genus Pseudomonas,"(Hylton 116). Now, though there was much more quarreling over it, a patent was granted allowing a whole species of bacterium to be the property of one person. What was to stop researchers from patenting actual organisms now? Furthermore, it was not long before scientists stretched the patent code to include actual animals. One such patent included any organism with an overexpressed oncogene. So, anyone who wanted to use a mouse that had cancer had to pay the patent-holder quite a hefty sum. Jeff Greene, a government researcher of the National Cancer Institution in Bethesda, Maryland, made an agreeable statement when he said "It would be nice if the system was revised,"(Hylton 119). Nowadays the patents have extended all the way to the genes of human DNA.

Hylton provides many examples of the implications patenting the human genome has caused. For example, John Moore, whom had been diagnosed with a rare cancer, learned that his doctor of about five years had secretly patented his cells. Moore went to the California Supreme court but, "According to the judges, Moore's cells couldn't belong to him because if they did belong to him, then [Dr.] Goldie couldn't have a patent on them… John Moore didn't own his own body," (Hylton 109). The cold, hard truth is that companies own parts of genes that could be a part of many people's bodies, because the patent code is able to cover discoveries.

Patents of genes could have drastic effects on discoveries in the future. For example, John Green, the government researcher, had to avoid the law because he invented a special mouse that was under the jurisdiction of a patent Dupont held. Green invented the mouse but it wasn't his and therefore should have been paying Dupont outrageous fees to continue research on the mice. How can the small research institute Green works at compete with such big businesses like Dupont or NIH when they hold the patents on life? And, although analysis is available, there is still not enough convincing evidence to explain what would occur if gene patents were completely dissolved.

Although one can have strong arguments against gene patents, one must take a realistic approach to the matter. For example, some have learned to cope with the patents, "Venter thinks of gene patents as necessary evil, a way for researchers to recoup their financial investments without keeping their discoveries secret," (Hylton 121). Venter, owning no patents himself, has learned that there is no way around the business of science; and, so, he has chosen a semi-optimistic approach to it. So what happens to the little guy? In addition, Michael J Reiss, author of the article "The Ethics in Patenting DNA", also comments that, "The fundamental utilitarian argument in favor of patenting less in research because the existence of patents gives patent holders an increased chance of getting their investment back," (Reiss 192). However, Reiss counters his comment with "…patenting encourages researchers to target their efforts where money is to be made, rather than where work is most needed," (Reiss 192). There must be a compromise if there is to be equal opportunity in the world of science and to decrease the negative, selfish aspects of the business of it.

There was a recent discussion paper published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics that identified the problems and proposed resolves. For example, "Protection by use patents of specific diagnostic test based on DNA sequences could provide an effective means of rewarding the inventor while providing an incentive for others to develop other tests" (Reiss 192). This statement advocates the use behind owning DNA sequences rather than being granted a patent just to have one over certain sequences. In addition, the council asserts that "the granting of patents which assert rights over DNA sequences as research tools should be discouraged" (Reiss 192). This point has many reasons of why it is such a welcomed idea: one being that it would not restrict the flow of information among researchers on account of money and inaccessibility; and another being that researchers would get full credit for their discoveries. Furthermore, the council states that "the granting of product patents which assert rights over DNA sequences for use in diagnosis should become the rare exception, rather than the norm" (Reiss 192). Even Reiss agrees that patents in this area are granted too liberally. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics made more propositions but in essence they hold "that downstream patents (on actual tests and gene delivery approaches) are more acceptable than upstream patents on DNA sequences," (Reiss 192).

A very different approach to take is the idea of creating a whole new form of intellectual property for biological material. This alternative form of patenting would include the same concepts because the genetic work of others needs protection and publishing; and also the concepts proposed by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics to keep the genetic work of others regulated. However, with the global agreement on this subject in 1997 it seems highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. Genetic patenting, it seems has become so integrated with the science world that it looks impossible to unravel.

Hylton's article gave much insight into the beginning and the continuing business of science, specifically the patenting of genes. And, Reiss shed light on both sides of an ongoing debate. Although most aspects were negative and there seems little hope in the near future for a resolve among big business patent holders, the small researcher, and the patient, one parent thought in an enlightening direction in the midst of horrible gene

Works Cited

Hylton, Wil S. "Who Owns This Body?" Esquire June 2001. Rpt. in Speculations. Ed. Jason Landrum, Matthew Wynn Sivils, Constance Squires. Kendall/Hunt, 2003. 107-124.

Reiss, Michael J. "The Ethics in Patenting DNA." Journal of Commercial Biotechnology 9.3 March 2003: 192. Proquest. Oklahoma State University Library. Article 348984101. 9 Sept. 2003 http://proquest.umi.com.

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