No one should be able to own the naturally occurring sequence of molecules that make up DNA in the human genome. First of all these are naturally occurring sequences, not invented by anyone. It is akin to an old time explorer planting a flag in a new land and claiming it for his country. Territory is not patentable and neither should be genes. It is a huge inhibitor to new innovation and more importantly towards lifesaving discoveries and health care.
The Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today on a case called, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics that may very well definitively answer this question, at least in the US.
There are actually persuasive arguments on both sides of this case. The case has wound its way through our court system and has already been brought to the Supreme Court once before, where it was sent back down to the US Court of Appeals. But now it is back on the Supreme Court docket.
The case involves the BRCA genes that were first uncovered by Myriad that are responsible for a large share of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad was granted patents for the specific sequences of these genes, as well as methods to identify these sequences and the drugs used to identify them.
According to the Wikipedia article on the case, it was brought against Myriad by "AMP (Association for Molecular Pathology) and the University of Pennsylvania, other plaintiffs in the suit included researchers at Columbia, NYU, Emory, and Yale; several patient advocacy groups; and several individual patients." The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Public Patent Foundation.
While I don't have a problem with patents being granted for the drugs that are used to identify the gene sequences, I do have a problem with patents on the sequences themselves. They are naturally occurring in nature. How can that be patentable?
The bigger issue is while being granted a patent allows the patent holder to recoup the money they invested in discovering the particular gene sequence in question, it also inhibits further research in potential therapies regarding that gene sequence that could result in new medical breakthroughs and save lives.
The whole human genome project was funded with government money, therefore all of the human genes discovered should be in the public domain. Open sourced if you will for others to use to develop therapies, cures and better understanding.
As much as I am against software patents, at least there someone actually wrote some code. Here someone just discovered some code if you will. How should they be given a patent on that?
I hope the fact that the Supreme Court has now chosen twice to look at this case means they also feel that gene sequences should not be something one can own. Of course we will have to wait for the ruling.
To me this is more like the Periodic Chart of the Elements. Elements and their atomic structure are there for everyone to see and use. Can you imagine someone saying they own or have a patent onthe Gold atom? The same way the Periodic Chart is everyones, the human DNA genome and particular gene sequences should be made freely available to everyone. Genetics holds the promise of such breakthrough discoveries. To be concentrated in the hands of the few who will squeeze their pound of flesh (literally) out of the DNA in every one of our bodies is perversely incorrect. We do not need to give rise to a new era of robber barons who accumulate untold riches because they were first to file on a particular sequence of genes existing in people bodies.
I hope the court does the right thing here. Otherwise the wrong decision could set genetic research back to the stone age.
Below is a YouTube video by the ACLU which represents the plaintiffs that I found very moving and persuasive (if you don't see the video please reload the page). This particular case strikes very close to home for me as I have more than a few friends and family members that are BRACA gene carriers and have been victims of both breast and ovarian cancer.
What do you think? I believe that because in the tech world we already have a very doubtful eye towards software patents, most of you reading this will agree that human DNA should not be patentable.