Myriad owns a part of me, Who owns the rest?

Just one day after posting this, on March 29, 2010, a coalition led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) successfully challenged the basis of Myriad’s patents in New York District Court. The patent has been invalidated.

Note: The following post is pretty lengthy. I tried to cut down on the length, but the subject matter demanded that I don’t.  All that has been stated in this post is pure non-fiction. Everything is real. I’ve tried to provide links wherever required, for others, googling should corroborate the facts. This post is a part of  a series I am planning to write (whether you like it or not) on Intellectual Property ( I hate to use that word ).

Still not sure what the title means? We are all ignorant fools. We ought to know at least the name of the company which owns us. All right, it does not own us completely, but it owns a small part of you , me , Obama ,Sachin, Madonna.. you name them. Well, Myriad Genetics is a bio-pharma company which owns patents on BRCA genes, there are two of them: BRCA1 and BRCA2. Not that the cryptic names matter. And 2 genes out of 23,688 human genes and I am cribbing about it!! Surely, I must be paranoid.  Take this: A 2005 study found that 4,382 of the 23,688 human genes in the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s gene database are explicitly claimed as intellectual property. Do the math, and you will find out that about 20% of any human is owned by one of those MNCs. So, what makes these 2 BRCA genes special that I singled them out of the roughly 4000 already patented genes? Let me elaborate.

BRCA genes are present in everyone of us.  Genes are just like pieces of programming code. Sometimes they work fine. And as all of us would have experienced, a small bug in the code can cause a lot of problems. A normally functioning BRCA gene suppresses Breast Cancer. Women who have some sort of “bugs” in their BRCA genetic code are more susceptible to Breast Cancer. That is great news!! It gives us an opportunity to find out if we are more susceptible to cancer than the average person even before we contract the disease. Medicine is marvellous. So is the business that one can make out of medicine. Myriad, by patenting the genes, effectively has control over anything that can be done on the genes, including testing if you are one of the more disadvantaged ones, forget about getting genetic therapy.

Excerpts from http://www.aclu.org/free-speech/brca-genes-and-patents:

Myriad has patents on both the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic sequences, as well as any mutations along those genes. That means, if you were to take the gene you have in your body right now and remove it from all the other biological material that surrounds it, you would be committing patent infringement regardless of how or why you did it. Myriad also has patents on any methods for locating mutations, whether those methods are known now or not.

This means that no one will be able to offer help in even finding out how to cure the disease except Myriad. It is not that Myriad has already found out how to cure the disease. NO. It has acquired a virtual monopoly over breast cancer. Other corporations are barred from conducting their own research and coming out with ways of curing it. Is this what we call a free market? Getting into the economics aspect of medicine, ever wondered why anti-retroviral drugs are some of the costliest? Now is the time to wonder.  For the less informed, anti-retroviral drugs are used in combating HIV.

Cells from a human spleen … mice that are genetically predisposed to get cancer … bacteria that can digest oil … an extract from a tree native to India … There are at least two features that these all have in common:

  • They are derived from living creatures
  • They have been patented as “human inventions”

One would have to thank the brilliant buccaneer of science, Craig Venter, for he was the one who came up with the idea that genes could be patented. He was the first person, along with NIH, to apply for patents on genes. His company, Celera Genomics Group, has applied for patents on 6,500 human genes. It’s anybody’s guess on what the company intends to do with those patents. Oh, I almost completely forgot to introduce Mr.Venter. He takes pride in cracking the human genome code, he is the head of the unofficial Human Genome Project. The original project was initially headed by James Watson.  (Ref: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/487773.stm)

The argument that most of the proponents of patents on life forms put forth is that they innovated in changing the naturally occurring genetic sequence and hence, the new life form thus brought into existence is not a product of nature but a product of human ingenuity. I leave it to the discretion of the readers on the ingenuity of the argument. Really, some arguments are so silly they don’t merit a debate. I do not know if the above argument falls in the same category.

We all know that every off-spring of ours has a new genetic sequence ( due to the various permutations that take place during meosis ) called random mutations.  Tomorrow’s world looks scary : If my child is born with a mutation that has naturally occurred in him, but that mutation has already been patented by some company, will the child be mine or the company’s or  will I be put in jail for bearing such a child? Or if I am exposed to some sort of radiation , say due to nuclear war  , and my genes are mutated, will I become a product of some company?

Before I wind up this post, I would like you all to think about this: If you consider patenting genes ( which are nothing but snippets of code which build and sustain life ) to be gross and unfair, how can one support patents on pieces of programming code,viz., Software Patents? I will return to that aspect in my next post.



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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You are rocking in Blogging also.. I feel there is no difference in platform, you rock everywhere..
    Proud to have you as my friend.

  2. Good Blog! As usual you only speak sense!!

  3. Dude awesome blog. Now I am waiting for your next post..

  4. Awesome. I was looking fr this kind of an argument for a long time now. Can u post the references man?

  5. now tats “enlightening” and you are an “enlightener”!!!
    outstanding work! keep blogging!! waiting for your next post and in the mean time i will do my duty of informing my friends to read ur blog:)

  6. Ahh..a really nice presentation!!

    Being a student of Biotechnology i wish to share my views..

    1)Let me go to the Human genome project, it’s a beautiful project started by the United States Department of Energy along wth the UK and few other governement funding. It is for reading our our code, considering our DNA to be a programme. Dr.James watson is the head of the programme. Let me say something about this gentleman he is considered to be the father of modern biotechnology and he is the who discovered the DNA structure, a mile stone in field of biotechnology and human health care. More than that he is a philanthropist and he always encourages usage of science for human welfare rather than economical gains. Craig ventor(
    a very enthusistic biologiacl enterprenuer entered the scene of human genome project after few years of its commencement. He with the help of private funding established the “Celera Genomics”. Initially the HGP ran very slow but Venter came up with a technique called “shot gun method” which paced up all reserch. This made the Celera genomics take up a major role in HGP. With increased importance Venter tried to patent the genes which were really important( not all genes are important in our genome!!) in this attempt he failed miserably because Watson was strictly against it and many scientists joined him.

    2) Patenting natural life products is strictly against law. But, any natural product which is purified or changed from its natural state can be patented. if at all some alkaloid is extracted from neem and is found to be useful in treating a disease after several steps of purification and other processes the medicine obtained can be patented and i feel its really ethical owing to the economical burden faced by the reserch team in their quest.

    3) the oil eating bacteria which u mentioned in this article is an interesting case which is refereed to as the Diamond vs Chakraborty case. Its was about patenting of a bacteria called “super Bug” (Pseudomonas putida), an interesting bacteria which can eat oil slick on ocean. It is actually an ordinary bacteria into which various characters have been introduced by Chakraborthy et al group.These characters are again taken from different bacteria. I can say it is a “All in One” mixture. I feel it
    is ethical for patenting such creation because its just like make a programme which works perfectly and different from its actual state by taking up script from different programmes. The Harvard Onco mouse is also one such invention where mice have been dfeveloped with cancer genes and used for cancer experiments.

    4) It may look a bit odd if you find living organisms in the list of patented inventions. But in the field of medicine or Biotechnology living organisms or the objects of work. entrepreneurs find it a necessity to secure their work by patenting just like in other fields.

    5) Comming into the Myriad genomics matter a lot of debate is currently on it by the scientific community and even the existing laws donot allow patenting of DNA, genes or any of their products without any change. This company is now ready to reappeal its claims over Cancer genes as it has lost it’s case in lower court.

    6) It’s to the welfare of the people the majority of scientific community keeps working. Definitely a minor portion
    of guys who look for economical benefits startup a turmoil. The laws were being made strong to fight against chaos and as long as bioethics prevail your’s and my genome are safe!!!

    • An insightful comment. I would like to clarify certain issues.

      A human being is no more a living being than a bacteria. Even a human is constructed using some programmatic code. Even we are based on our DNA. Just that our code is more complex compared to that of a bacteria. I am sure you would agree on that. Now, tomorrow, when genetic therapy comes into full effect, and scientists start modifying human genes, would you support the patenting of humans as well??? They may not occur naturally, but they are very much humans.

      More important is the question of patents itself. Especially gene patents. It’s not just a question of not allowing other companies to come up with the same mutations. I repeat the question I raised, if my child is born with the mutation that was patented by some company, will the cild belong to me???

      Or if tomorrow, we find that an oil eating bacteria occurs naturally, should that life form be given away to the company which hold the patents to the mutation.

      The economic constraints faced by the research establishments are high. I agree. But think for a while. Why are they high?? They are high because they work in an isolated environment. If the research was carried in a more congenial environment, the costs would not be astronomical. May be an article which would explain how patents stifle innovation is due on my part.


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