Who Owns Your Genes?

July 2nd, 2009 by Kathy McManus

The ACLU challenges one company’s attempt to patent — and own — human genes.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Knowledge is power, but is owning it responsible?

That’s one of the questions at the core of a recent federal lawsuit challenging the right of a company to patent—in effect to own--human genes.

The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against Myriad Genetics, which owns the patents for two genes linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancers. The ACLU contends that patenting genes is unconstitutional and hinders research into a cure for cancer.

“Patents were designed to protect human inventions, and you can’t invent the gene,” said an ACLU attorney. “What they have really patented is knowledge.”

Myriad also owns the patent for testing the two genes, which means a patient can’t get a second opinion test—before a mastectomy or ovarian surgery--because no other company can legally perform the $3,000 analysis. Six breast cancer patients have joined the lawsuit, suing along with 100,000 scientists, pathologists, geneticists, and women’s health groups, all opposed to gene patenting.

Myriad says it will vigorously defend what it calls “our intellectual property rights.” The company noted that it held 23 genetic patents, all awarded by the U.S. Patent Office, which has been granting genetic ownership rights for years. “It may be a shock to people outside the industry,” said a genetics expert, but “this has been the established way of doing business.”

The sticky helix of ethical questions prompted newspaper readers to weigh in. “If you create a novel gene from scratch, patenting makes sense,” wrote one. “But patenting something you’ve just taken a look at? It seems an awful lot like patenting gravity.” “The plaintiffs’ real motivation is that they want cheaper access to this technology,” wrote another, which “we wouldn’t have but for the promise of patent protection,” which requires massive amounts of money risked in research and development.

Tell us what you think: Should human genes be patented? If a company spends millions of dollars cracking a genetic code, what should its rights be? Where would you draw the line between what can and cannot be patented?