Patenting Parts of People

The ACLU just started a lawsuit saying that patents of human genes are invalid. Specifically, it's about two breast cancer genes, BRCA1 and 2, but the implications extend to the principle of the thing. And it's about bloody time.

To understand the merits of the case, consider two parallel situations.

a) Someone removed a strip of skin from your forearm (surgically, with anesthesia, of course), carefully dissected out the different layers, labelled them, and filed the whole thing away in a scientific exhibit. Do they get a patent? No. You can't patent something you didn't invent.

b) Someone removed a microscopically small piece of skin from your forearm, carefully noted all the different components down to the molecules, labelled them, and filed the whole thing away. Do they get a patent? Yes. Apparently, so long as it's invisible, you can patent things you didn't invent.

At this point it seems quaint to insist that patenting life, so long as it's in very small pieces, is wrong. We've grown inured to the travesty. It is, after all, a very lucrative travesty.

I don't buy the argument that because it's done in a test tube, that makes it different. Let's say your goal is to read a book. Whether you read it, hear it read out loud, or feel the letters using Braille, you can get at the contents of the book. Just because somebody makes the book available in large type doesn't give them the right to copyright the book. If they invent a new kind of printing press they can patent that, but they still can't copyright the book. Studying life by looking into a test tube, a microscope, or a transect are all different methods, but none of them give anyone the right to patent life itself.

And yet, that's what people do. Most of the time, they invent nothing at all. They apply standard methods to find information about life which they then patent. Sometimes, new techniques are found, and very good ones, too. But instead of being given patents only on the technique, they get patents on the life the technique allows them to study. It's as if Galileo were given a patent on the Universe instead of the telescope.

So that's why I say it's about bloody time. That's why organizations representing tens of thousands of scientists have joined the suit. And that's why this is perhaps the most critical lawsuit of this generation. What's at stake is whether science advances as fast as knowledge is discovered or whether a medieval guild mentality can keep us ignorant.

The cost of ignorance has increasingly become public knowledge as the Bush years were devoted to making it obvious. What's been lost in stem cell science alone is thousands of human beings who are still have now-curable retinopathies, still have juvenile diabetics, still have Parkinson's, and so on through a sad list of diseases. But that's only a faint echo of what we're losing because of the insanity of patenting life.

What can be done? Watch this suit like a hawk. Watch for any Congressional action and pester the bejeesus out of the Congresscritters. And, right now it happens that (via Ars Technica), "the Department of Health and Human Services is in the process of setting an official policy on gene patenting and will be accepting public comment on drafts of the policy for a few more days." Get over there and tell them (politely) that we need to get back to patenting inventions, not discoveries. Human health, the advancement of science in the US, and our competitiveness depends on it.

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