Biology in the News Explained

Too bad gene patent law wasn’t a key election issue

But even I missed the positive development until today that the feds have finally reached the conclusion that your unchanged DNA should not be owned by anyone but you.

There are a lot of reasons that in a rational world, it should have been a campaign issue – personally I think taking back our genes is a little more important in the large scheme of things than “taking back our country.” Even if all you care about is economics, stopping the madness that allows companies to patent biological information that they didn’t create has huge repercussions for future health care costs – which is presumably why the current administration has done this 180 on the issue.

Of course, it also comes on the heels (with some delay) of the satisfying yet somewhat surprising judicial decision (given previous decisions involving ownership of DNA) that the patent held by Myriad Genetics on BRCA genes, which affect breast cancer, is not valid.

The government has finally come around to the rational position held by the majority of scientists that simply decoding a gene does not alter it in any way, so how can it be patentable?  (In the typical case of the BRCA gene, the final identification came after NIH-funded academic labs spent years on the real work of isolating its location on the genome.)

The question at this point is, how much influence will one legal brief wield?  According to the article, it is not clear if this will be enough to change Patent Office policy.  Probably it shouldn’t be that easy.  But it hopefully signals that the feds are going to rework this disastrous policy which proponents claim spurs innovations in biotechnology research, but in fact stifles access to academic researchers who want to work on one of the hundreds of variants of important genes such as this, arguably slowing our understanding of their mechanisms of action.  (I watched a talk on BRCA a few years ago that was littered with remarks about what could and could not be shown to the audience because of patent restrictions.)

Instead, the brief likely signals more court battles.  But with the feds now on the side of access, it should increase the odds that access to quality health care will not in the future be held hostage by corporations who own your genes, and continue to make you pay thousands and wait weeks for a test that can easily be done in any molecular biology lab in a few hours for a fraction of the cost.


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