Men stumble over the truth from time to time, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened. -- Winston Churchill

All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them. -- Galileo Galilei

I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's hell. -- Harry Truman

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Supreme Court May Decide Who Owns Your Genetic Code

A case being argued in the Supreme Court may decide basic questions about what can be patented, particularly intellectual property rights and biotechnology. The case itself deals with a patent granted in 1990 to scientists at the University of Colorado and Columbia in New York. They discovered that high levels of an amino acid, homocysteine, in the blood or urine tended to be associated with a deficiency of B vitamins.

The patent not only granted ownership of a test invented for vitamin B deficiency to Metabolite Laboratories, which owns the patent, but for the thought about the relationship between two chemicals in the human body. Another company, LabCorp, invented a different testing method, which was also based on thinking about the correlation between the two chemicals. Metabolite sued LabCorp when the latter did not pay royalties.

You may be wondering why you should care. Potentially the court's decision could impact thousands of other patents, including the 20% of the human genome that is patented, as well as many other areas of patent law that revolve around discoveries of what are not man made inventions, but instead reveal what already exists in nature. Imagine if Watson and Crick had patented the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. All subsequent genetic research would have infringed on that patent.

But even more specific genetic patenting is a huge problem. For example, a patent has already been granted for the genetic sequence governing Alzheimer's disease. Anyone now wanting to research that disease must have the money to first pay the royalties. In affect, these patents allow huge areas of potential life saving research to be cordoned off by "biopiracy".

A biotech company, Myriad Genetics, has secured exclusive licenses based on patents for the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes, mutations in which are linked to breast and ovarian cancer. It sent letters ordering laboratories to stop screening women for the mutations.

Here's a quote that capsulizes the issue of these extraordinary attempts to chill research for monetary gain:

"Any company that wants to be in the business of using genes, proteins, or antibodies as drugs has a very high probability of running afoul of our patents. From a commercial point of view, they are severely constrained - and far more than they realize." Dr William A. Haseltine, Chairman and CEO, Human Genome Sciences.

It is as if Joseph Priestley had patented his discovery of oxygen, and threatened patent suits against those who breath. How broadly the court chooses to address the issue of patenting naturally occurring processes and structures is an important one. Not just for scientists, but for everyone in the future who might benefit from medical research efforts to find new cures and treatments for disease.

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This comment has nothing to do with the topic (which is interesting in its own right), but I just want to say that because of this blog, my faith in the Kansas blogosphere is hanging on by a fingernail (rather than plummeting to God knows where). Most of the other conservative bloggers can't even complete a sentence properly, and hardly anything need be said about the leftward part.

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