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Why are They Being Allowed to Occur?
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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In Wil S. Hylton's article "Who Owns Our Body" he discusses in depth how much control of our lives is in someone else's hands. He mentions cases in which treatment and screening for diseases is delayed or prevented because of a company's patent on a gene. This article puts into perspective how impractical it is for companies to slow down the progress of science by withholding their products from researchers. Allowing these companies to acquire patents on genes is very detrimental to progress in almost all fields of genetic study.
The main obstacle in the way of progress is the lack of availability of some genes for research. As a result of patents on genes, companies have the exclusive right to study and test for that gene, "the patent holder could, in fact, prohibit or restrict certain medical tests that would require isolation of that gene" (Tebo 48). Researchers who are looking to study these patented genes often find themselves literally restricted from access to these genes or restricted by the payments which must be made to the owners of these genes. "A patent on something unique, in this case, the genetic code-means no one else can invent around and improve on the product."(Benowitz 9) Patents keep other people from exploring the possibilities for use and research of the gene that is covered. Genetic patents leave the choice of what to do with a certain gene up to the patent holder. If they want to be the only one researching in that area, then they can choose to do so. This is certainly not how science was intended to be. The patent holders have absolute control over what gets done with their gene. This does nothing but inhibit growth and efficiency in research. What if this absolute control fell into the wrong hands? A patent holder could single-handedly stop research entirely in an area. This is exactly what Jeremy Rifkin is attempting to do. Hylton writes about Rifkin's current efforts to patent all human-animal hybrids and stop all progress in that potentially fruitful area of genetic study. Patents on genetic material could allow radicals like Jeremy Rifkin to restrict the use of life saving knowledge.
The patenting of genetic materials leads to a stalemate in research. The patent holders have little incentive to put a large amount of resources into research because they are making money from people who need the gene. As a result of their position of power, it is not necessary to use more resources for research because they are making profits simply by owning access to the gene, thus overall research of their gene diminishes. This is extremely detrimental to progress in genetic study because the people who have the power only use it when it will benefit them. For instance, Myriad Genetics Inc. controls the BRCA1 gene, which is the gene for breast cancer. Myriad charges three thousand dollars to test for their gene. They are often criticized for not expanding their research for different mutations, but society has no power to force them into additional research. As a result of the lack of regulations in this field, companies cannot be forced to do anything with their invention. The decision about what to do with the gene is left entirely up to the companies' moral and financial stance.
On the other hand, researchers are reluctant to invest large amounts of time and money because of the chance they will not receive credit for their work and because of the extra expense of having to pay for access to genes. Many patents are so broad that they cover things that have not even been invented yet, simply because a certain gene is part of the discovery. In Hylton's article he writes about Jeff Green, who developed the first transgenic mouse model for prostate cancer. The problem is that he built this mouse by over expressing oncogenes, and DuPont has a patent on this procedure. Therefore Jeff Green cannot use his own creation because of this one thing that is covered in someone's patent: "If he had discovered a cure for cancer, the cure would have belonged to DuPont"(Hylton 118). Patents like this are an inconvenience to large research facilities, such as the U.S. government, but are major blows to small time researchers. Many people just cannot afford to give up on something they have devoted a large amount of time to. This causes many researchers to be very reluctant to search for new discoveries, which inhibits the progress of genetic study.
The hindrance gene patents place on research slows down the discovery of new cures for diseases. This is the biggest injustice that occurs because of the patenting of genetic material. While scientists are wasting time worrying about the financial aspect of genetic research, they sometimes forget about the effects these delays have on the people who are waiting for a cure. For instance, if a scientist makes a discovery they cannot start working with it right away. They first must find out if it already belongs to somebody and if it does they must then decide to either abandon their discovery because it uses someone else's gene, or to pay whatever price is being demanded for use of the gene. Even if the discovery is not patented its release to the public will likely be delayed so the scientists can gather enough information to support a claim for their own patent. While this is going on, other researchers could have been working with this new discovery, and the person who discovered it could have been studying its effects. If it were not possible to patent genes, this entire process would be shortened and would become more efficient through the collaboration of many researchers instead of one or none. It may not seem like an extremely important issue to the average person, but it is to someone who is waiting on that research.
The right patents grant to their holders leads to a monopoly in the market for a single gene. According to Marshall: "While nobody owns the gene in your body, inventors can own the right to exploit it commercially."(Marshall 781). If genetic research is approached from a strictly economic viewpoint, there is no reason for a patent holder to research their own gene after a use for it has been discovered. After there is a demand for their gene all they have to do is wait for the money to come in from people who need the gene for research or need to test patients for the gene. These patents allow companies to set the market price for access to their gene. There is no substitute for their gene therefore people are left with two options; pay whatever price is being asked, or avoid that area of research. Monopolies in the gene market should be examined just like apparent monopolies are in other markets. Microsoft was put on trial for keeping out competitors and controlling the distribution of something that is essential so the majority of people can progress. Why are genes any different? It can not be argued that are too small to be considered monopolies. Amgen Inc. makes over one billion dollars a year from its gene which is used to produce a hormone that is necessary for kidney patients. Genetic diseases affect almost everyone either directly or indirectly, so why is the closed market for genes left alone.
The way patents are going now they are going to continue to slow research down more and more as time goes on. Eventually every gene will be patented and few researchers are going to be able to pay for every genetic test they want to conduct. This will bring about a standstill in research because any new discovery has the possibility to be claimed by someone else. A major motive behind research is the publication of findings and no one will devote many resources to something they may not receive credit for. Government must begin planning for what is to come in the future because there is no telling how far these patents might go. Twenty years ago no person would have dreamed that people would be granted patents on genetic materials. It is hard to imagine were this issue will be in twenty years. Hopefully the U.S. government can recognize how detrimental gene patenting has become to research and is planning on changing the way patents are granted.
There is an immediate need to reevaluate our patent laws concerning genetic material. These patents reduce the availability of genes for research, slow down the discovery of cures, and overall slow down progress in genetic research. The reality of the situation is driven home in the conclusion of Hylton's article where he writes about a father standing up in the middle of a convention and talking about how his gene research will hopefully help cure his daughter (Hylton 124). He should not have to worry for a second that someone might make him stop his research because it is their gene that is affecting his daughter. This makes one think about the possibility and affordability of that research if someone else has control of that gene. What would that guy tell his daughter? Genetic research should not just be a money issue. Sometimes people just need to do the right thing.
Benowitz, Steve. "European Groups Oppose Myriad's Latest Patent on BRCA1." Journal of the National Cancer Institute 95 (2003): 8-9
Hylton, Wil S. "Who Owns This Body?" Speculations An Anthology for Reading, Writing, Research. Landrum, Jason, Matthew Wynn Sivils, Constance Squires, eds. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 2003. 107-24.
Marshall, Eliot. "Companies Rush to Patent DNA." American Association for the Advancement of Science 275 (1997): 780-781
Tebo, Margaret Graham. "The Big Gene Profit Machine." ABA Journal 87 (2001): 46-52
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