Recurring Decimals…..

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Misunderstanding gene patents

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Via Amit Varma’s India Uncut, came accross this article by Michael Crichton in the NYT. Crichton says,

[T]he human genome exists in every one of us, and is therefore our shared heritage and an undoubted fact of nature. Nevertheless 20 percent of the genome is now privately owned. The gene for diabetes is owned, and its owner has something to say about any research you do, and what it will cost you. The entire genome of the hepatitis C virus is owned by a biotech company. Royalty costs now influence the direction of research in basic diseases, and often even the testing for diseases. Such barriers to medical testing and research are not in the public interest. Do you want to be told by your doctor, “Oh, nobody studies your disease any more because the owner of the gene/enzyme/correlation has made it too expensive to do research?”

Now, there can be much debate and there certainly exists grey areas in the field of gene patenting; but, whether intentional or not, Crichton is over-simplifying the issue in this article. No one can hold patents for your ‘natural’ genes (especially your own one which would be unique) – patents are usually granted only for the pure form of a particular gene. The gene has to be isolated (technical term: cloned) from our chromosome, be available in a test-tube and should be able to do something useful (e.g. produce the relevant protein when put into a bacteria) for a patent to be granted. The simple act of dicovery that a particular sequence of genetic material does something (e.g. cause a disease or cause the color of your eyes) will generally not be validated as a patent, at least by the United States PTO. Companies invest considerable money and time in the isolation step and therefore it is really within their right to recover the cost by patenting both the process and the final gene product.
Couple of articles dealing with this issue can be found here and here.

BTW, Amit, in his usual pithy style also says thanks for the little mercies:

And no, no one owns a patent on bad puns.

He would otherwise be paying through his nose for these . 😉


Written by BongoP'o'ndit

March 20, 2006 at 9:24 am

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