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Gene Patents:
A Battle of Ownership and the Road to Mapping a Body
Vanessa Gullett
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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A common belief that many people hold is that nobody owns their body, and they are free to complete any action as they please. However, this is not the case, and to an extent, what a person may want to find out about their own body may be restricted by specific patent laws. Wil S. Hylton informs the public of these new and over-looked laws in his article, "Who Owns This Body?" Furthermore, Hylton's article helps to illustrate some common disputes between the general public and researchers, which have arisen with the expansion of human gene research. Greed and possession of gene patents have disrupted scientific and medical investigations with numerous regulations, therefore, the number of genome patents need to be restricted to a minimum as the discovery of new found microorganisms in the body continues to aid in medical advancements.

When gene research is discussed, one may possibly think of clones, invetro fertilization and choosing the sex of an unborn child. However, the more common and often over-looked debate lies over who owns the patents to specific cells and genes being tested and researched. Soon human gene research and patents will affect everyone's lives, because it is a growing field of science attracting many medical professionals who want their own claim on the human body. Hylton raises the question of bodily ownership in his essay by asking: "What happens if we patent all the building blocks of life?" (119) With the government allowing people to take out patents on body parts, it has changed how people can be taken care of, not only by themselves but also by their doctors. For instance, doctors who are trying to help a patient now have to go to great lengths and spend large amounts of money to determine if their patient may have a dysfunctional gene, which in turn could cause or contain a life threatening illness. With the time and money devoted to the tests, you would rather do it yourself, "but you can't test yourself because you don't know how, and your doctor can't test you because he's not allowed- at least, not without permission from the person who owns the gene" (Hylton 109). Sadly enough, in some cases by the time a doctor has gone through all the proper channels to do the testing it could be too late for their patient. A common discussion among those working with gene research in the United Kingdom leaves them caught between two extremes:

On the one hand they want to play their part in an international collaboration which has great potential both for the advancement of the understanding of the human biology and for the delivery of medical advances. On the other hand they have an obligation to consider how best to safeguard any possible return to the U.K. economy if the potential cDNA sequences prove to have commercial value. (Howarth 11)

It appears as though those who are taking out patents on human life are becoming over-zealous to increase capital flow and revenues on their new findings. Also, it could be that they do not want anyone to steal their idea and discover anything better without their knowledge and recognition. Meanwhile, the initial person who supplies the cells has no say in the discovery, and now a tiny piece of them has been taken away and given a scientific number of protection and possession.

Money is a continual factor in advanced genetics research. However, there exists a point where money should become the least of scientists' and medical professionals' worries. Additional research can only benefit a cause and therefore a principal researcher should gladly welcome help, regardless of the capital involved. Although the human genome project is a unique discovery, businesses funding the scientific research may feel differently than researchers about who can aid in further studies. For instance, Hylton points out that "big business… have filed for patents on hundreds of thousands of DNA sequences over the past five years," and "there will surely be money in licensing genes to researchers" (121). However, Hylton also claims that the true payoff for large companies who own strands of DNA sequences will come when their specific strand is the one with the access needed to cure diseases "associated with patented genes," like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's (121). Still, the money involved goes beyond research and what it accomplishes; it also touches less known and highly protected areas. These protected areas of research are possessions which people own; it is a claim to their name and prevents others from stealing their findings to further another cause without their consent and recognition. Certain government research agencies have voiced opinions on the cost which genetic patents incur to access someone else's patent for other scientific investigations. For instance, "the Comitato Nazionale Bioetica…believe that all information resulting from efforts made within the framework of the Human Genome Project should be always freely available to the entire scientific community" (Howarth 11). However, sadly this opinion is rarely heard and blocking scientific and medical research with unbelievable patent fees continues striking down researchers and their projects. Patents truly are a critical means to derive money from these new discoveries, especially those relating to the human body. Hylton informs his audience that while patents on the human body may seem unethical and illegal, the reality is just the opposite and patent laws were passed without the general public even knowing:

Here was the Supreme Court making it legal to patent not only a bacterium but a whole new species of them. Here was the Supreme Court declaring a species of animals to be an invention. Here was the Supreme Court writing a new definition of life. Not that most people were even paying attention to the business of science (Hylton 117).
Lastly, this issue of not paying attention to these new scientific findings and patents can cost researchers a lot more money than initially planned, because they legally can not investigate another researchers' possession. A change needs to be made to slow if not stop scientists' greed over discoveries directly affecting human lives. Gene research could benefit the entire human population in remarkable ways. Through gene research they could find cures to terminal illnesses and help thousands of people. However, these discoveries are slowed down by numerous amounts of paper work and cash flows to gene patent holders. Also, the regulations and stipulations of patents which scientists must go through to continue research for such diseases are a significant burden, and enrage many other researchers, doctors, and patients. In Hylton's essay he tells a story of one man who questioned those around him by stating, "I think we all kind of got buried in the minutiae of patents…it's important to recognize the power of technology to solve and protect human existence" (124). Great discoveries in medicine can come from human genetic research if patents relating to the human body and health were regulated differently and under a new form of supervision. The supervision of patents which should be imposed would be able to transfer across nations and present a unified front for the advancement of human genetics. This unified front would also be a great benefit, because without it international competition for advanced economic gains would become out of control. Howarth and Ruberti approach the topic of world genetic research cooperation by claiming: The granting of patents of this sort is almost certain to undermine the entire Human Genome Project, and it could easily lead to the disappearance of cooperation between nations on human genome research and its replacement with unbridled international competition aimed simply at the securing of patents. (11) Furthermore, if all those who partake in genetic research across the world formed a common union or team, they could achieve remarkable outcomes making the entire world a better and healthier place to live.

Overall, it can be seen that people are not free to investigate all aspects of their physical and bodily health, because in reality they do not own all the parts and cells found in their own body. Even though patents do not always last a life time, several patents may just outlive certain individuals who desperately need help from that one small microorganism which holds the key to their diagnosis and cure. These special patents on human body parts and cells should be kept to a minimum and regulated internationally because it would help further the advancement of medical findings. Also, by enacting a new system of international patent regulations, greed and possession in the field of genome research would greatly disintegrate. Furthermore, in the process of developing a new patent policy across borders, it would finally make it possible to unite scientists and medical professionals across the world to help save the lives of those who need it now, not just those hypothetical patients in the future. Work Cited

Howarth, Alan, and Antonio Ruberti. "Patenting Complementary DNA." Science 256.5053 (1992): 11.

Hylton, Wil S. "Who Owns This Body?" Speculations An Anthology for Reading, Writing, and Research. Landrum, Jason, Matthew Wynn Sivils and Constane Squires, eds. Dubique: Kendall/Hunt, 2003. 107-124.

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