Blog of Rights

Scientists, Pundits and Journos Weigh In: Don't Patent Our Genes

By Aliya Hussain, Women's Rights Project & Jessica Moldovan, Women's Rights Project at 1:42pm

For the past year, the ACLU has been working to end patents on human genes, genes we all have in our bodies. The ACLU and the Public Patent Foundation filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against the United States Patent and Trademark Office and Myriad Genetics charging that Myriad's patents on two human genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (BRCA1 and BRCA2) are invalid. On March 29, 2010, a federal district court agreed and ruled that the two genes can't be patented because they are products and laws of nature.

Unfortunately, Myriad continues to assert that it has a right to patent the BRCA genes. Yesterday, the company filed an appeal with the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.

The implications of the district court ruling are far-reaching, and call into question the patent office's practice of gene patenting. But don't just take our word for it. Across the nation, journalists, Nobel Prize Laureates, and talking heads are weighing in.

Exploring the history, current controversy, and potential ramifications of the case against Myriad's patents, Morley Safer of 60 Minutes asks "How on earth can anyone patent a gene?" Safer demonstrates the real life consequences of the patents by interviewing two patients who helped to bring the case against the biotech company: Genae Girard and Lisbeth Ceriani.

After receiving test results that showed she had an increased risk for ovarian cancer, Girard wanted a second opinion before moving forward with getting her ovaries removed — but because of Myriad's monopoly on testing, there was no other lab where she could confirm her result. Ceriani couldn't even afford the first opinion, as Myriad refused to contract with her insurance plan to pay for the testing, which now costs over $4,000. As The New York Times captured in "Cancer Patients Challenge the Patenting of a Gene," these two women aren't giving up anytime soon.

Patients aren't the only ones up in arms about the patent. Doctors and researchers, as the Times further reported, deride the patents as hindering scientific freedom — the same freedom that once led to the mapping of the human genome. For them, the court ruling was a victory for scientific access to our genetic information: "Nature: 1; Company: 0."

Supporters of gene patents assert that companies need patent incentives, but scholars Joseph Stiglitz and John Sulston and many others argue that the opposite is actually true. In their Wall Street Journal op-ed, "The Case Against Gene Patents," the two Nobel winners explain that "the patenting of human genes is wrong as a matter of science and as a matter of economics." Patents should be granted on true inventions — the new tests and therapies that cannot be developed because of the chilling effect of gene patents. David Ewing Duncan, a contributor to CNNMoney's Fortune, writes that the biotech industry needs to "get creative," shifting their focus from patents to finding a more collaborative way to protect and share findings. "Now it's time for that innovative spirit to move away from the general counsel's office and back to the lab."

From government advisory committees to editorial boards, everybody — even Stephen Colbert — has an opinion. Boiling down the issue to a simple question — "Why cure cancer if you can't make a buck off of it?" — Colbert expresses frustration regarding his inability to patent elements of himself. We thank you, Stephen, for helping us underline just how ridiculous gene patents are.

We will continue to fight these patents. Our genes are just too important.

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