Owning Genes

At some point in the history of patents, something went a little nutty: it became possible to patent genes themselves. Not “a method for extracting” a gene. Not “a method for synthesizing” a gene. But the gene itself. As a result, a number of biotech companies own human genes. If you want to find out if you have a dangerous mutation that predisposes you to breast cancer, no matter which lab you choose, no matter which technology they use to test you, they have to pay a royalty fee to the gene patent holder.

One can have a number of arguments as to whether this is an efficient way to do research. Hint, it’s not, it’s terrible, it makes research fantastically expensive and slow. But I’m actually less concerned about that than I am about the principle: how is it okay for a naturally occurring substance that is part of me to be controlled by someone else? It’s ludicrous, and it violates a basic sense of personal freedom. Might a patent holder eventually have the right to charge me because my body is naturally producing a beneficial chemical derived from “their” gene?

So the ACLU is taking on this fight, and I commend them for it. This is a big deal. And the opposition to their action is going to be fierce, because the short-term financial interests in gene patenting are enormous. But this is the fight that matters for personal genomic freedom, efficient biomedical research, and generally finding a sane balance between necessary commercial incentives and basic freedoms. Patent a novel genome sequencing technique? Yes, by all means. Patent a gene itself so that no matter what other sequencing technique is invented, it can’t be used to sequence the “owned” gene? Insane, and wrong.