Should Genes Be Patented

While the government doesn’t grant patents over actual genes in the human body, it awards patents for genetic sequences that have been identified by researchers

Is there really a difference?

Many doctors, patients and academics contend that gene sequences are products of nature and should never give rise to property rights. Gene patents, they say, create monopolies, allowing patent holders to block alternative tests and research that might ultimately yield better, and cheaper, medical care.

“Gene patents are no different than patents granted to antibiotics extracted from fungus or to adrenaline purified from cow tissue,” says Hans Sauer, associate general counsel for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

I disagree. The product of the fungus, ie. the antibiotic, can be patented, as well as the process of creating the antibiotic from the fungus, but not the fungus itself. The patents in question are allowing Big Pharm to patent the ACTUAL gene sequence, not a derivative thereof.

A case pending in New York federal court is the first to squarely address whether genetic sequences can be patented. The suit concerns patents covering the so-called BRCA 1 and 2 genes, which have been linked to an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

The plaintiffs, who include doctors and women diagnosed with breast cancer, claim Utah-based Myriad Genetics Inc., which owns various BRCA patents and sells BRCA screening tests, has the power to block alternative tests and research.

“It is unconstitutional that our patent office granted a patent on a part of the body,” says plaintiff Genae Girard. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, the 40-year-old Austin, Texas, resident underwent a Myriad test in 2006 indicating she had a BRCA2 gene mutation. Ms. Girard says she was upset to learn that an alternative BRCA test wasn’t available. “There is human error, and labs make mistakes,” she says. “I was making a decision on whether to get a double mastectomy and ovarian removal on one opinion,” says Ms. Girard,

Two years ago, my OB-GYN recommended I undergo this genetic screening. Not only would my insurance not cover it, the cost would’ve been $3000. Just how many people can afford that?

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