Genetic Patents

If you're afraid of the boogeyman, just hit the back button right now and save yourself lots of trouble...

Let me preface this little tirade by noting that I'm not a genetic researcher. I'm a computer programmer who's interested in the goings on in the world of genetics. Amendments and corrections are most welcome.

Genetic Research

For quite some time now, we have been mapping the human genotype. We are discovering all kinds of thing about ourselves. We have also been mapping and twiddling genetic sequences in all manner of plants and animals.

In some cases, we're finding some (at least superficially) fantastic results. We can, for example, modify certain crops so that bugs don't like to eat them. This means drastically reduced pesticide use; a good thing. We can make crops that yield more food per square foot than ever before, and we can make crops that have higher concentration of nutrients than their non-GM cousins.

The best example I know of is so-called "golden rice" which is yellow in color because it has been genetically modified to produce vitamin A (like carrots). Rice is the staple diet of a large segment of the global population which cannot, for various reasons, get enough natural sources of vitamin A. -- ajp

Please note that these are superficially good results. There are some serious problems and some very big unanswered questions: We have to tread very lightly here.

Firstly, there is simply no long-term data available. We've rushed headlong into genetically modifying plants and animals and we have absolutely no idea what the effect is going to be in ten, twenty or fifty years. No idea at all. None. Anyone who tells you different is lying to you. There is no long term data, only speculation.

There is no long-term data by definition. The first time anyone does anything whatsoever there is no long-term data. The long-term data will be accumulated. -- ajp

On this point I would like to note that the food we eat today - especially cereals - went through a long process of "Genetic Modification" long before it became a buzz word. Bread wheat for example now has 4 times as many chromosomes as its wild ancestor (that is chromosomes, people - a collection of millions of genes). How? through crossbreeding initially, but during the middle of the last century there was a massive programme of radiation & chemical mutagen treatment of seeds to create new lines. We are the long-term data on these experiments & we should be more worried about this than the more directed approach now being used in GM foods. -- CRS

Secondly, there is the small matter of cross-species transfer. In essence, the situation is this: you modify a tomato so that it has more vitamin B (for example), and all seems well. But a year later, you find the genes you injected into the tomato... in a bumblebee! Whew! It looks like the bumblebee is ok, though, so I guess it's safe, right? Short answer: We don't know.

No, it doesn't work like this. When genes are added/subtracted/modified in a tomato, they physically become part of the tomato and are indistinguishable from the tomato's natural gene set. The modified genes can no more be transferred from the tomato to a bumblebee than any naturally occurring tomato genes can be transferred. The concern is not that the genes will be transferred, the concern is that products of the gene could be transferred. For example, there is a species of corn that has been genetically modified to produce a substance that is toxic to insects. The concern is that this substance could be released in the pollen of the corn and could do "collateral damage" to insect species that wouldn't ordinarily harm the corn, the most provocative example being the monarch butterfly. This data is still unclear. In no case, however, does the genetic modification itself get passed on across species. -- ajp

No joke, modified genes are appearing in places we didn't put them. So far, no harm done, though. More than likely the same thing is happening with naturally occurring genes. The fear, though, is that by introducing new variables into a very complex system, we will cause widespread failure because of unforeseen interactions. HeisenBugs, in other words. It's been stable so far... but we honestly don't know what's going to happen. Doubly scary because we're the test subjects and we can't very well abort the experiment and try again.

ajp == AndyPierce

Patents on Genetic Material

Biotechnology companies are losing billions of dollars every year, but people keep investing in them because the payoff is going to be out of this world. Why? Because of patents. Patents on useful genes.

Biotech companies are mapping, modifying and patenting genetic material from every source imaginable: plants, animals and humans. There are companies going into the rain forests in South America and into the deserts in Australia to take hair follicle samples and cheek scrapings from aboriginal peoples in order to patent the genes they find (steal?).

In fact, there is a biotech company that owns an entire species of mouse! Anyone else who uses them has to pay up. I don't know if the mice have to pay a royalty charge before they have sex, but almost nothing surprises me any more.

Companies are also patenting human genes. For example, there is a certain type of breast cancer which, it turns out, is hereditary. Basically, some company discovered a link between a gene they were looking at and a predisposition to a certain breast cancer. So they patented the gene. And the test for the presence of the gene. Now they charge $10,000US to anyone who does the test or to anyone who uses the gene. Including researchers.

What they've done, and it is there right to do so under current patent law, is to close off further research into this type of cancer, and to close of testing to all but a few wealthy clinics and patients. Great work, guys.

As if all this wasn't enough, the academic moto "publish or perish" is simply no longer valid. Now it's "patent or perish". Researchers are deliberately withholding results until they have won patents on them. The fear is that someone else will take your research and bolt ahead, leaving you in the dust, so to speak. The end result is discouraging: In a world of rapid advance, technical conferences are starving for new material. Nobody's willing to talk anymore.

Anyway...this is how I see it: Human genes belong to humanity. Allowing a company to "own" them is tantamount to slavery.

Likewise, our food supply belongs to the public, not to private individuals or corporations. The current trend is to favour engineered crops over biodiversirty. This is leading us in a direction of more and more volume of fewer and fewer different kinds of crops making up our food supply. And those crops are based on patented genes owned by biotech corporations.

A consideration however is that food crops for humans are spectacularly non-diversifying. For example, if you needed 10 acres of "normal" corn to produce the same amount of food as 8 acres of genetically modified corn, you could potentially plant the modified corn and have 2 acres left over which could be whatever you wanted, including for example rainforest in appropriate areas. -- AndyPierce

Anywhere you go in the civilized world, there is one thing you can be damn sure about: They keep the food under lock and key. Increasingly, corporations are holding the keys and frankly that's a damn scary thought.

-- AnthonyLander

Just a thought to consider. Companies do not patent genes, they patent the intellectual property they generate. If the company that patented the breast cancer gene and test had know that they could not benefit from their work, would they have done it in the first place? If this company had instead come up with a surgical tool that could somehow excise this cancer, would there be the same outrage? What is really at issue is the moral obligation to humanity. They took the risk. They should be able to profit from it. If someone would die without their test or some subsequent treatement derived from their work, that is the moral issue. Not simply the ability to patent genes.

-- JayceMil

IMHO, this line of argument is a strawman. Did Einstein profit (in terms of money) from the theory of Relativity? Many satellites nowadays probably won't work if they do not account for the change in time predicted in General Relativity. Do the host of physicists and mathematican profit from the theory of Quantum Mechanics? The semi-conductors industry won't be in the current state if not for QM. Yet in these and many other cases, R&D was still being done. Numerous research are right now in progress in areas where advances are not patentable. And let's consider the effects of patents from another angle, the for-profit nature of the patent system actively discourages further research on already existing products, e.g., no drug companies will do research on the medical effects of cheaply available substances, because they cannot profit from it. Another example, if a cancer research company discovers that eating sand will cure cancer, you can be sure that this knowledge will be actively suppressed to prevent all their research effort from becoming worthless. -- OliverChung

Bad example. Einstein's research cost was minimal, so he could fund it himself. Gene sequencing is still far too expensive to become a patent clerk's hobby. Big science is more like the research that used to be funded by kings and nations for power, prestige and wealth. Spain and Portugal funded exploration of the world in order to profit from it. The US and USSR funded the exploration of space in pursuit of global supremacy (and the profit that ensues). -- EricHodges

To me, "genetic patent" suggests not a patent on a genotype, but a SubmarinePatent constructed via a genetic algorithm... -- KarlKnechtel

See also: AntiSoftwarePatents
CategoryLegal CategoryBiology

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