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Gene Patents:
When Will We Stop, What Has Already Gone Too Far?
Lettishia Smutny
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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Genetics, DNA and Biotechnology: are they topics that everyday people should be concerned with or apprehensive of? Should a person or company be allowed to patent something that could affect humans and animals worldwide? In the article "Who Owns This Body?" Wil S. Hylton delineates several points of view. There are many people acquiring patents for a multitude of reasons: some for profit, some for research and the funding that accompanies it, and others for status or personal acquisition/retribution. Genetics, genes, and DNA should not be patentable, because the consequences could be devastating to: research time and cost increases, medicine development and cost, the lives of millions of people waiting for possible treatments/cures, along with unconceivable future evolutionary potential.

First of all, the affects on research could be profound to the cost and time of countless research projects. For example, hypothetically, one of the worlds leading oncologists may have discovered a possible cure for breast cancer. Since Myriad Genetics in Salt Lake City owns the patent to that specific gene, BRCA1, they would have to give authorization for that specific gene to be accessed in every person/animal involved in the research/clinical study. The cost for that permission could be substantial: "Then you're going to have to pay for the cost of the doctors visit, plus a $2500 fee to Myriad Genetics just to access its gene" as summarized by Hylton (109). The research could be delayed significantly, due to lack of funding or taking time to raise funds in order to pay Myriad Genetics whatever fee or royalties they decided to impose, for the use/access to the patented gene. Myriad Genetics could also decline access, which is within the patent holder's rights and prevent or postpone any possible treatment or cure. An anonymous author stated: "It has been argued that DNA patents often force the public to pay twice: First, in the form of tax dollars awarded as government research grants, and then to the patent holders for access to the inventions" (349). That is double jeopardy; even criminals in our society have rights against being charged twice for the same thing.

Patents also affect the cost and availability of medicine. For example, a pharmaceutical company has developed a more cost efficient method of compounding and producing a very expensive medication, which has already been patented by another company. The company with the patent rights can prevent the other company from pursuing development. The result of the patent holder's rights is that the consumer must purchase it from the company with the patent rights at their price, with no other alternative. For companies this power is common knowledge, as stated by J.P. Morgan's equity report: "Given its early position in gene finding and patenting, and genomics database, it has carved out a large, very valuable, and largely irreversible position" (qtd. in Hylton 121). Since the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States, there has been notable concern about Anthrax exposure, and treatment. Bayer Pharmaceuticals owns the patent on Cipro, the only medication to treat inhaled Anthrax. Even if there was an outbreak of epidemic magnitude, legally, Bayer Pharmaceuticals has exclusive rights to manufacture the drug and could deter even government production of it without their authorization. An example of this power as stated by Hylton is, "after years of haggling, DuPont finally gave the government permission. Now the government can use mice for cancer research without being sued by DuPont" (119). This power that the current patent law in the United States bestows upon the patent holder inadvertently causes a monopoly of sorts, as far as cost and development of medication.

Furthermore, if a company wanted to do research on the debilitating disease of Alzheimer's, they would need sufficient funding in order to pay for access to that specific gene, as it is also patented. This extra financial burden could dramatically slow down the research process, while money is being raised to pay whoever has the patent rights. Michael Watson, a professor of pediatrics and genetics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, eloquently summarized the consequences under current patent laws when he stated: "The Patent and Trademark Office has issued patents with far too broad a right to patent holders; they essentially end up owning a disease rather than some specific development for a test" (qtd. in Foubister 11). The patent holder could potentially refuse to allow access to the gene or set their royalties at an outrageous amount, essentially creating a type of monopoly.

So, how did we let the U.S. Patent Laws get to where they are today? Originally, patent laws according to Hylton were "designed to protect inventions-think cotton gins, whoopee cushions, Twinkies!-made on American soil" (110). The Plant Patent Act of 1970 specifically excluded bacteria from patenting, making what they thought was a clear distinction between a plant and other living organisms. Then in 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a patent to General Electric on a bacterium and according to Hylton, "Not only was the U.S. Supreme Court overruling Congress with it's verdict, it was overruling the U.S. Constitution, which states that only Congress has the power to change patent laws" (117). In essence, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to patenting DNA/genes of any kind, plant, animal and obviously human, which is precisely what we are faced with today.

There are already research projects underway where they are experimenting with the mixing of human DNA/genes with animals DNA/genes, like pigs and frogs, attempting to mutate or create organs for use in human transplants. What could be "invented" next, beings that are half-human and half-animal? Potentially we could create, or as scientists would phrase it, "invent" an infinite number of new beings/species. While most people are oblivious to what is going on in the world of DNA/gene patenting, others are applying for patents on species and generations that do not even exist yet. For example, Jeremy Rifkin according to Hylton, "applied for a patent on all human-animal hybrids, a patent that would give him right to determine who can mix human an animal DNA" (120). Our children and grandchildren could already be someone's property, even though they have not yet been born, created or invented.

Everyone should be concerned and involved with the idea/process of patenting genes and DNA. Eventually, the consequences will affect everyone worldwide. Whether directly or indirectly, from the cost of a doctors visit or what kind of medicine is available and its cost, to whether or not there is a cure available or in the works for any one of numerous debilitating diseases. All of these factors depend on whether or not someone holds a patent on the specific gene needing to be accessed and what price they set for that access. More importantly, these factors will determine whether or not our future generations and species will be mutants of sorts, or be the property of someone's patented "invention". Jim Watson, one of the scientists who first solved the DNA riddle, stated it as accurately as possible when he warned the genetic community as early as 1975 that "We can't even measure the fucking risks" (qtd. in Hylton 111). DNA/genes are the blueprints to human existence and if we start tampering with them, as some people are already doing, our world is going to go down a path of unimaginable, infinite possibilities. These possibilities could reap consequences that we may not see clearly right now, even though they are becoming inevitably lucid with each day that passes. The United States Supreme Court could not foresee human DNA/genes being patented or mixed with animals in 1980 when they stated "The fact that microorganisms are alive is without legal significance" (qtd. in Hylton 116). That statement set an irreversible precedence and put DNA/gene patenting on a course that twenty five years ago, would have been considered absurd or impossible. If the fact that something is living is insignificant, then what if anything do we consider significant?

DNA should not be patentable matter; it was not created by people but is an unknown, natural enigma of the body and nature. Our technology has surpassed our ability to comprehend the multitude of infinite possibilities that we could be facing. By patenting DNA/genes, we are turning the miraculous creation of life into a business that is being consumed by our gluttonous culture of science and technology, with no regard for the obscure evolution that future generations will have to confront. This is a conflict that we must engage now, before it is too late to stop what has already gone too far and self-ownership in the coming millennium fades into nothing more than, an unattainable illusion for the future generations.

Works Cited

Anonymous. "DNA patents: putting an end to "business as usual"." The Lancet 360.9330 (2002): 349

Foubister, Vida. "Gene patents raise concerns for researchers, clinicians." American Medical News 43.7 (2000): 9, 11-12

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

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