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Should corporations be able to patent the building blocks of life?

A debate has formed over the patenting of genes. That may not sound exciting if you’re not undergoing medical testing. Should you be able to patent part of the building blocks of life?

Groups like the ACLU are protesting gene patents, but pharmaceutical companies claim they’re simply protecting intellectual property. In late March, the U.S. Supreme Court remanded a case, The Association for Molecular Pathology, et al., v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., et al (Docket No. 11-725), to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.

The circuit court already ruled in 2011 that portions of two genes, BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, are patentable. Those genes are associated with breast cancer in 5-10 percent of cases, according to an article at Columbia University’s 21st Century. The 2011 ruling protected Myriad Genetics’ rights to the isolated DNA in those genes.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Patent Office:

“The lawsuit, Association for Molecular Pathology, et al. v. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, et al., was filed on behalf of researchers, genetic counselors, women patients, cancer survivors, breast cancer and women's health groups, and scientific associations representing 150,000 geneticists, pathologists, and laboratory professionals. The lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, as well as Myriad Genetics and the University of Utah Research Foundation, which hold the patents on the genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. The lawsuit charges that patents on human genes violate the First Amendment and patent law because genes are ‘products of nature’ and therefore can't be patented.”

Myriad issued a statement defending the company’s gene patents; the company takes the position that research has not been hindered and the cost for their testing instruments is not prohibitive to patients.

The ACLU website published a video featuring Kathleen Maxian, a patient suffering from advanced stage ovarian cancer. Maxian believes the practice of gene patents has affected her negatively.

A 2005 study reported by National Geographic found that “more than 4,000 genes, or 20 percent of the almost 24,000 human genes, have been claimed in U.S. patents.” About two thirds of the patents were held by private companies and the rest were held by universities. At that time a single company owned patents that covered 2,000 human genes.

Should a corporation be permitted to patent isolated parts of a human gene? Is it ethical to permit someone to patent the building blocks of life? Should you be able to secure a patent for a gene sequence in the same manner you secure a patent for an invention?

The questions may not sound riveting, but as technology continues a rapid march into unknown realms, this may be a good time to talk about it. Furthermore, it’s important for consumers to have access to information about it because our health may be impacted.

You can read comments about the practice of gene patents at the Federal Register.

(Analysis by Kay B. Day/April 24, 2012)

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