Underreported: Gene Patenting

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Twenty percent of the human genome has been patented by biotechnology companies, universities, and research institutions. The patenting of two genes associated with breast and ovarian cancer is also the subject of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Public Patent Foundation against Myriad Genetics, a company that offers diagnostic tests for the genes. On today’s Underreported segment we’ll look at the controversial practice of gene patenting and the serious ethical, medical, and public policy questions it raises. We’ll be joined by Dr. David Koepsell, a philosopher, attorney, and Assistant Professor at the Technology University of Delft in the Netherlands. His book is called Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes.


Dr. David Koepsell,

Comments [19]

PL Hayes from Aberystwyth

“Society pays a price when governments ban patents on entire classes of inventions” --JMT, #15

Society pays a price when governments /allow/ patents on entire classes of invention. The assumptions - myths, even - that patents always do “promote progress...” (let alone are necessary to innovation) and have an overall positive effect on economic and social welfare are hopelessly facile and flawed.

Oct. 22 2009 04:09 PM
David Koepsell from Delft, NL

As for the "isolation and purification" argument, mentioned by a couple of commentators above, "wild type" genes get "purified" by the same process that the human body uses "purifies" these genes when it transcribes the information into proteins (mRNA skips the introns, leaving out what patent attorneys call "impurities" in a feat of rhetorical gymnastics). This is not new, not inventive, and not worthy of patenting. Patent lawyers like to describe this process as though it's some sort of technical achievement, but it is a smoke screen meant to confuse those who don't understand how cDNA is created -- in a process that mimics that which nature does all the time.

Oct. 22 2009 03:18 PM
JMT from Manhattan

The solution to the negative externalities of gene patenting is not to mess with patent law by banning gene patents. The solution is universal healthcare so that all can benefit from innovation in biotechnology. This also addresses the ethical problems raised by your guest.

Oct. 22 2009 01:52 PM
CJ from NY

It should be banned. There is a conflict of interest. The same people who are developing treatments own the patents on the genes themselves. They have a vested interest in perpetuating disorder.

Oct. 22 2009 01:51 PM
JMT from Manhattan

Society pays a price when governments ban patents on entire classes of inventions, such as genes, as your guest is suggesting. People do not invest money in investing money in commercializing science. There may be more philosophical tinkering with genetic material, but less investment in actual products that save lives.

Oct. 22 2009 01:51 PM
JMT from Manhattan

As a patent attorney, I feel compelled to point out that wild type genes, i.e., as they are found in nature are NOT patentable. The Supreme Court decided this question in seminal case of Diamond vs. Chakabarty. Only man-made genes are patentable. Methods of using wild type genes, for example in a diagnostic test, are patentable. In the U.S., any patented gene that is used for purely experimental purposes, and not for commercial profit, is exempt from infringement.

Oct. 22 2009 01:49 PM

ask him about how monsanto uses patents on seeds?

Oct. 22 2009 01:45 PM
Betty Anne from UES

Does this process impede or further science? Isn't the point of science to keep moving forward and these extract processes seem to break down logical methodology.

Oct. 22 2009 01:43 PM
Betty Anne from UES

How does this work when it's done with federal monies? How is done abroad?

Oct. 22 2009 01:42 PM
Ben S from NYC

Isn't your guest fudging the truth a little? The gene patents cover genes at _purity_ levels not found in nature, so technically they don't cover the genes found in our bodies.

Oct. 22 2009 01:33 PM
Karl Gallmeyer from New Hartford, CT

A process that extracts a mineral from the soil could enjoy the benefit of patent protection but the mineral itself is not patentable. How has gene identification come to be fundamentally different than this?

Oct. 22 2009 01:28 PM
Jeff Johnson from Manhattan

I'm not sure I get this. As I understand patents, they only confer on the patent holder a right to prevent others from using, making, selling and importing a patented invention. As your guest has stated, this doesn't apply to the use of genes inside the body of a living person, and I believe there's a pretty well established exception for research, so what are we trying to protect against by excluding genes from patentability? Is it just a matter of expanding (or clarifying) the scope of the research exemption? Or is your guest advocating that the discoverer of a new gene can't develop a test for identifying that gene and then sell it without being entitled to compensation of others do the same thing? If so, what motivates the discoverer to disclose the gene in the first place? Wouldn't this just encourage discoverers to maintain gene structures as a trade secret?

Oct. 22 2009 01:27 PM
Steve from Brooklyn

I'm a phd student in Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins and I've disagreed with this kind of patenting on moral grounds for some time. Could the guest discuss patenting tissue for cell lines as well? Researchers can take cancer cells from a dying patient, and then sell those cells (with some modifications) without any of the profits going to the cancer patient. That has never seemed right to me.

Oct. 22 2009 01:25 PM
James from Brooklyn

Patent your own random genes! It's like buying a URL before someone needs it. The first time someone licenses some random gene that turns out to be useful for a billion or so, those pharmas will get the policy changed in favor of open source lickety split.

Oct. 22 2009 01:22 PM
Richard from Astoria, Queens

In the documentary The Future of Food, it's claimed that companies like Monsanto have been patenting seed DNA for plants - like corn, beans, bananas, etc - which have not been altered in any way.

Oct. 22 2009 01:18 PM
Richard from Astoria, Queens

Would Dr. Koepsell care to comment on The Newborn Screening Saves Lives Act of 2007? The act, signed into law last year by George Bush calls for dna collection and storage from all babies born in the United States. Why is this being done?

Oct. 22 2009 01:16 PM

yes just like synthetic hormones taht wound up beign hrrible for women (HRT)

Oct. 22 2009 01:13 PM

Hey! Dannon yogurt makes activia out of patented bacteria! How did that happen!

Oct. 22 2009 01:12 PM
James from Brooklyn

Can you describe how the patent works? Do you just get a right to the gene for whatever purpose, or do you patent the gene for a certain use or therapy?

Patenting the use seems sane; patenting the gene seems nuts.

Oct. 22 2009 01:11 PM

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