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Gene Patents:
Issues of Controversy, Finances, and Morality
Kara Lawson
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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Human-genome projects have cased ferocious uproars in recent years. Arguments of morality in research and patents seem endless, although the search for cures could greatly benefit those with diseases. Wil S. Hylton makes a valiant attempt to explain how the phenomena began and the events thereafter in his article "Who Owns This Body?" The true motive for research, which is to save lives, seems to get lost amidst all the legal issues. There is a possible solution to eliminate this problem. Contrary to some beliefs, companies should not be allowed to patent genes or the techniques used to access them due to moral and financial issues.

While money issues are always going to be a factor, companies should collaborate rather than seek to outdo one another. At first thought one might think a socialist system is being suggested here, but that is necessarily so. It is simply meant that rather than corporations having to constantly worry about their competitors, it would be nice if they could funnel all of their energy into research. By allowing corporations the right to patent techniques used in accessing genes, it merely slows the process of research. If a scientist has an enlightening idea and would like to test it on a gene, he or she would first have to contact the company with ownership rights of that gene. The company that has the patent on it must then consider whether or not it even wants the individual to have the opportunity to experiment with the gene or be able to use some of its techniques. This is where the company places its focus on the wrong aspect of the situation. Rather than wondering how that scientist's ideas could benefit the research, thought is instantly focused on how that could harm them financially. Worries of who would get credit if something major was discovered is a factor, and some companies would rather not risk losing such credit and therefore deny use to the individual. A scientist should be able to concentrate on the actual research rather than have to first get permission to even investigate that particular gene. Hylton points out that "researchers are paying to access them, too, sometimes millions of dollars just to continue the work of looking for a cure" (109). Those billions of dollars could instead further research at a phenomenal rate and be saving countless lives.

Another aspect to consider is whether or not it is moral to patent human genes or the methods used to access them. A human's DNA structure determines what they are like as a person, or as Andrew Sheard explains in his article: "DNA is 'part of mankind's heritage'" (236). Personality, character, and all that gives someone their identity are encompassed in their DNA sequence. To give companies ownership of these things seem preposterous. It is almost as though they are being given the ownership rights to more than just a gene: life is being sold. As Tom Reynold's points out in his article: "DNA holds the keys to human life, it is immoral-and should be illegal-to own, buy, or sell the rights to it" (184). Since DNA determines virtually everything a person is, it is as if people are being patented. Those very genes that are being patented are what compose a human life.

Once patenting of genes and access techniques is socially accepted, one has to wonder what would come next. Where will the line be drawn? Decades from now the controversy could be whether or not to allow patenting on human embryos. As Reynolds explains: "Such patents may lead society down a slippery slope to the point where human embryos and genetically engineered humans are treated as commodities" (184). Companies are being given ownership rights to people's genetic makeup. Is that truly a moral thing to do? Such an idea is very controversial at this time, but there is a chance it will be socially accepted one day. A lot of scientific research and advances have caused unrest when first introduced to society, but over time they became accepted. Perhaps this will indeed be the case with patenting. One must fear what could possibly come next and the morality of it as well. It is for this reason many people believe such patenting would not be a good societal norm to acquire.

Although it is quite risky and costly, genome research is believed to be the key to success in the search for cures. As Hylton says: "Such modifications might do good in some cases, with the potential to cure hereditary diseases or deformations" (111). Scientists have been diligently searching for decades to unlock the mystery of some diseases. At times it has seemed a never-ending battle with no answers. Finally it appears the answers we have so diligently looked for might be at our fingertips. To make this progress, scientists just need the chance to familiarize themselves with the new discoveries of this research. If they must concern themselves with financial issues, such a chance is immediately expelled. In order to achieve big accomplishments, such as cures for diseases, it might be necessary to go to such extremes as these new, radical human-genome projects. It seems foolish to hinder the opportunity they have to progress in research with endless funding issues and painstaking patent ordeals between the companies.

So much focus is put on legalities, the true concern of human welfare is forgotten at times. It seems whether people survive a disease is not always first priority anymore. In a story Hylton wrote about, a man remarked: "I think we all kind of get buried in the minutiae of patents and so forth, and I think it's important to recognize the power of this technology to solve and to protect the human existence" (124). There are times when the legal system gets bogged down with patents and ownership rights. The focal point is now which company has the most patents over the most genes and how much money it will receive in return. There are thousands of people dying daily from the same diseases research has been done on for years. Yet even after all this time and research, people are still dying. When one thinks of it in that respect, a sense of urgency arises and the patents on research techniques suddenly seem rather petty when comparing it to a life being lost or saved. One should keep in mind why the research is being done: to change and save lives.

The opposing viewpoints in considering gene and technique patenting are polar opposites of one another. For those who support patents, one argument they propose is based on the length of patents. The maximum life of a patent is 20 years (Toumi 136). Those taking this stance argue that "our children may well be able to exploit most of the genome with impunity" (Toumi 136). This reasoning seems absurd. Why hope that children will not have to deal with the problems associated with patenting we encounter today? One might see that this could be referring to the fact that in 20 years, companies would have had substantial time to regain any money loses that had occurred. This, however, is almost false reasoning. If patenting of genes and techniques is not halted, the cycle of patents could be endless. In 20 years, just as one patent expired, it could be another 10 years before a certain technique patent expired. Such delays may not profit children after all. Rather than providing solutions before the fact, focus should be placed on preventing such dilemmas.

One other argument the conflicting stance puts forth explains why they believe patenting is economically necessary. They argue "the intellectual property rights in the healthcare industry is an important issue since this industry relies heavily on patents to recover the investment made on drug discovery" (Toumi 135). Those with this point of view place a lot of emphasis on the importance of having ownership rights to genes in order for them to prosper financially. One can easily understand that even those who own patents need a source of income, however, they need not obtain such by starving other companies of what is their much-needed money as well. Such action would exemplify a company's selfish side, because they realize they are in need and are willing to acquire such at the expense of others. The current system of companies and patents resembles capitalism a great deal. Capitalism in the research industry causes more problems than assistance due to its profound influence. Some think in the research field, everyone should be equal so the focus can solely be placed on research, as mentioned in the beginning. Rather than using patents as a company's main source of income, revenues need to be obtained in some other manner. One such source could be the government. Companies could possibly ask the government to provide more financial assistance. Organizations, such as charities, are also willing to provide funding for those in need. Many companies already receive some government funding, donations, or other sources of income, so they should not place so much emphasis on income from patents.

Opposing viewpoints may never diminish when considering human-genome projects. Society simply has to decide whether patents or cures have the greater importance. Monetary issues dealing with ownership rights, constant questions of morality, and endless disputes amidst the opposing sides are nothing but hindrances. They are issues that take precious time from scientists and put research rather behind. One must also keep in mind the effect that acceptance of such patents would have on social norms. What could possibly arouse controversy beyond this subject cannot be imagined. That is why emphasis should be placed on cures for diseases and answers for sick children. Society must determine where the emphasis is to be placed: How many genes a company has patented in the last year or how many lives their research was able to save. One would certainly hope human welfare would be placed first.

Works Cited

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

Reynolds, Tom. "Gene Patent Race Speeds Ahead Amid Controversy, Concern." Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 92.3 (2000): 184-186.

Sheard, Andrew. "Patenting human genes: Reflections on the public debate." Journal of Commercial Biotechnology. 8.3 (2002): 235-239.

Toumi, Emma. "In defence of gene patents." Journal of Commercial Biotechnology. 9.2 (2003): 135-141.

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