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Human Genome Mapped... and Sold to the Highest Bidder?

By A5triX in Technology
Sun Feb 18, 2001 at 01:59:08 AM EST
Tags: Freedom (all tags)

The Human Genome Project has fascinated me ever since I was made aware of its existance earlier this year. It is a project designed to map the entire human gene system. I was always curious, though, about who funded the research and who stood to profit in the end. Luckily I found this article on IndyMedia.org. The article above (and mine as well) raises questions about the global legislation in favor of pharmecutical companies, and whether or not tomorrow you will actually own your body. Read on.

In summary the article presents the following facts...

  • The Human Genome Project is funded by an array of government and foundation sources. The article gives the example of the British wing of researchers who are funded by the Wellcome Trust who claims to be Independent, but in actuallity has a 4.7% holding in the pharmecutical company Gallaxo Wellcome.
  • During the 1980's the US government removed all legal barriers restricting corporations from patenting human genetic information
  • During the 1990's the US government pushed similar policies through trade organizations such as the WTO, requiring member nations to legalize the patentability of most forms of life.
  • Many companies already own patents on over half a million genetic patterns.
  • When GeneWatch UK began its database search last month, patents had been granted or were pending on 126,672 whole or partial human genes. As of this week, however, that number had rocketed by over 34,500 to 161,195, an increase of 27%.
  • Patents are pending on genes controlling processes in the human heart, teeth, tongue, colon, skin, brain, bone, ear, lung, liver, kidney, sperm, blood and immune system.
  • The US department of health is the world's fifth biggest recorded gene patenter, with applications pending or granted on almost 3,000 sequences.
These facts in themselves are becoming increasingly alarming to me. I'll spare you a history lesson, but as technology and commerce have been progressing rapidly togethor, human rights and personal freedom have fallen by the way side (even in America, and I'm sure nobody needs a reminder).

The question I would raise is, "Should private corporations be allowed to patent the code that embodies our natural existance?" Biotech firms say they need patent protection to recoup their investments. And yes, everyone knows this is how capitalism works, but where does this leave independent researchers who simply wish to give to the community and help mankind? Where did moves like these leave DVD hackers and DeCSS? Ok maybe thats a bad comparision, being that DVD hacking doesn't really embody human rights violations, but perhaps the comparision can serve to forecast what could possibily happen to gene hackers in the future (the independents).

"Alongside human genes, patents are being sought by organisations, overwhelmingly from rich countries, on hundreds of thousands of animal and plant genes, including those in staple crops such as rice and wheat." -IndyMedia.org

Ethics in business? There just aren't any, and when it comes to the business of the human body. The two just don't seem to mix well. This is why I say someone needs to step in and hold corporations responsible (perhaps similar to the W3C?), setup ethical guidelines and restrictions for what will be considered acceptable uses and patents of the human genetic code (See poll).


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Should human genetic patenting and use be regulated?
o Yes! Assemble an International unbiased commission set to the task of forming an acceptable use policy, enforced by government? 21%
o Yes! Have the governments do it! We can trust em' ! 3%
o Yes! But I don't know who should regulate. 18%
o Yes! Have the Open Source community create an acceptable use policy enforced by geeks with flame throwers. 37%
o No! Big business can regulate itself an determine their own acceptable use policies. 3%
o No! What are you talking about? Are you nuts? This article makes absolutley no sense, go back to reading slashdot. 15%

Votes: 32
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o article
o IndyMedia. org
o Also by A5triX

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Human Genome Mapped... and Sold to the Highest Bidder? | 16 comments (15 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
A thought I just had... (4.50 / 4) (#1)
by theboz on Sat Feb 17, 2001 at 05:16:24 PM EST

Perhaps we are looking at this the wrong way. Rather than selling the rights to the actual genomes, what is being sold is the data that they interpreted from the genome. It's still not good to hide information that could help the betterment of mankind, but I don't think it's quite as evil as it is made out to be. If they are just getting the rights to the map they made to the human genome, and there is something unique about the way they have the data organized, I don't see a huge problem with it. At least I would think it's legal, although immoral. If they were to try to get the rights to the genome itself, I'd say it's time to go ahead and nuke the Earth for making such a failure as mankind.


What I suspect they're patenting (4.33 / 3) (#3)
by Miniluv on Sat Feb 17, 2001 at 06:12:30 PM EST

Seeing as these patents sure wouldn't holdup under prior art if they really are patenting the specific sequence of genes, rather than their interpretation of the function, or some other abstraction of the data. I think it safe to say that you could, quite easily, prove that God owns the patent and has long since placed it in the public domain, even if you're an Atheist.

This is similar to patents on the techniques involved in making processors, when you consider it. Intel has patents on using silicon in certain ways to end up with a Pentium IV. AMD has other patents on using silicon in other ways to end up with an Athlon. Neither of these is a "bad" patent, because they aren't patenting the art of printing silicon, but rather specific methods for doing so. I suspect that this is what the biotech gene patents will evolve into, is patenting ways of working with specific genetic sequences to achieve specific ends.

"Its like someone opened my mouth and stuck a fistful of herbs in it." - Tamio Kageyama, Iron Chef 'Battle Eggplant'
[ Parent ]

Yeah? (4.00 / 2) (#4)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sat Feb 17, 2001 at 07:10:35 PM EST

Perhaps we are looking at this the wrong way. Rather than selling the rights to the actual genomes, what is being sold is the data that they interpreted from the genome.

But does their "interpretation" of the genome contain anything that is not in the genome itself, and which merits patent protection? I suspect not.

Let's put it this way: the critical question is whether I can sequence some patented DNA out of my own chromosomes, "interpret" it in a different way, and get a patent on that.

[ Parent ]

biotech patents (none / 0) (#16)
by spacy on Fri Mar 09, 2001 at 03:11:16 PM EST

I've worked in the biotech field for ~4 years. I am not a patent lawyer, but the impression I've gotten over the years is that when a gene is patented what is protected is commercial uses of the gene. Such as, testing for the presence of the gene (as in testing for a gene for x disease), or any therapies resulting from research into the gene or the gene product. The company doesn't really "own" the gene (really how could they?) but they own the rights to make money from it. And they have a a short window (five years or so) to get a therapy or commercial application to market or their patent is void.

Also, usually a company has to have done significant research into the gene already- a company usually can't patent a gene sequence without knowing that the function of the gene sequence is. Thus, Celera is going to have a hard time patenting their "genes" that they pulled out of the genome, since its very hard to determine specifically what a piece of DNA is supposed to do. Usually genetics researchers go at genes the other way, which is to go searching for the DNA sequence of an already known protein. So, while there are certainly silly genetic patents out there, its not quite as easy as it might seem to get them.

[ Parent ]

This is how bio/pharma works... (4.16 / 6) (#5)
by babylago on Sat Feb 17, 2001 at 07:34:27 PM EST

First, I ask you to consider how poor the government is at regulating illegal drugs. They're horribly bad at it. Government (ours, yours, whoever's) and Bio/Pharma long ago came to a very simple arrangement:

1) Government promises to protect Pharma for a while.
2) Pharma spends money to develop something, knowing that they will be protected.
3) Pharma brings product to market that costs $0.02 to make and sell it for $2.00, making tons of money.
4) After a while, Government says 'Protection Over', and little innovative pharmas start making generic versions of the product that move the price structure to a more realistic level.
5) Pharma starts studies on the next product.
6) Start over at number 1.

Big Bio and Pharma companies are working on a five to ten year development planning horizon. Merck already knows what they're bringing to market in the next seven years. The above arrangement allows this to work, since Pharma knows that they will be making a ton of money for a given period of time.

The profit motive is the motive for business, and whatever we say about public health, the fact of the matter is that, with the exception of things like the Orphan Drug program, medical research is less about good intentions than it is about marketable solutions. The fact that Pharma product tends to solve medical problems is a pretty useful and economically sound outcome.

I think what will happen is that protection on these patents will eventually be limited under pressure from the consumer health market, but the above arrangement will continue for the foreseeable future, since it's actually a good compromise all the way around.

[ Blog | Hunnh ]

one minor edit. (3.33 / 3) (#8)
by physicsgod on Sun Feb 18, 2001 at 12:23:41 AM EST

The last phrase in item (3) should probably read "...recouping their investment."

--- "Those not wearing body armor are hereby advised to keep their arguments on-topic" Schlock Mercenary
[ Parent ]
invented???? (3.00 / 2) (#6)
by www.sorehands.com on Sat Feb 17, 2001 at 08:41:28 PM EST

I thought patents would cover things invented or processes -- not discoveries!

The only learned how the genome works and how to understand it. This existed for millions of years. The genome is nothing new!

Mattel, SLAPP terrorists intent on destroying free speech.

I hereby patent... (1.50 / 2) (#10)
by xriso on Sun Feb 18, 2001 at 03:21:15 AM EST

the discovery that more and more things are allowed to be patented as the corps buy into government more and more.
*** Quits: xriso:#kuro5hin (Forever)
[ Parent ]
Different view on gene patents (4.00 / 1) (#7)
by pig bodine on Sat Feb 17, 2001 at 10:34:16 PM EST

MIT's "Technology Review" magazine printed an article last year offering a different point of view on the patenting of the genome. It was written by the chairman and CEO of Human Genome Sciences, and does a good job at pointing out where people are mistaken about the nature and intention of genetic patents (and patents in general).

There's a lot of alarmism surrounding genetic patents that could probably be eliminated if people took the time to educate themselves a little, and approach the issue from a less excitable perspective.

Not really a different view (5.00 / 1) (#11)
by fluke on Sun Feb 18, 2001 at 04:23:03 AM EST

The "genes" being patented are not the genes in people's bodies, much less the aggregation of all genes. Rather, "genes," as we in genomics understand them, are isolated DNA sequences and the proteins expressed by those DNA sequences--individual genes removed from the natural context of the human body and rendered useful by crafting them in specific ways for medical use.

That article just seems to confirm our suspicions that they really are patenting things found in nature. All that has happened is that the Human Genome has been mapped, not that all the mapped genes have been used to create cures.

I have no problem with the patenting of drugs, or specific way of making human proteins by putting human genes in bacteria or mammary glands of mammals. But to patent the genes or the proteins themselves seems to be merely an excuse for extorting money and a gross abuse of the patent system.

[ Parent ]

You've contradicted your quote (none / 0) (#15)
by pig bodine on Sun Feb 18, 2001 at 05:47:42 PM EST

The article is about the way people confuse patents with ownership, and the reasons genetic patents are granted. In fact, in the quote you gave, the author was pointing out that the patents are not being granted on actual genes as they are found in nature. Frankly, I don't see how that confirms your suspicion at all.

[ Parent ]

genomes in the public domain (3.00 / 1) (#9)
by the_idoru on Sun Feb 18, 2001 at 01:13:05 AM EST

when scientists realized that mapping the entire human genome was actually feasible, the race was on. who could come up with the whole thing first? of course, the us government (that funds a lot of research in america) was interested. well, so was craig ventner. venter is a geneticist who is now head of celera genomics, a corporate entity that funded research into mapping of the human genome. well as it turned out, celera actually beat the us government's researchers.

so how is a corporation going to compete with the us government and earn money when the results of the government's studies are public domain? well, celera argues that their code is more accurate. furthermore, they offer databases that researchers can use to aid their study of the genome (we have the code, time to figure out what the hell it says). you can pay celera to access their (supposedly) more accurate code using their (supposedly) more efficient means of access. this is how these corporations plan on making money off of the genome.

furthermore, i suspect that when they say that they are going to patent a genome, they mean their codes and techniques for accessing them. while they may receive a patent for their code, anyone can go out and make their own. and in fact, many genetic codes are public domain. those genomes that are not public domain are not only because 1) no one has bothered to map the genome yet and publish it, or 2)the research that mapped the genome was funded by a privately-funded organization like a corporation that, as such, now owns the results of the study. but, just because a corporation owns that data does not mean that you cant go out and get your own damn data. that just how science works. its not really a reason to get anyone's panties in a bunch (yet). so, while a corporation may own data such as a genome map, that certainly does not mean that an equally viable code can no longer be generated by someone else to be published publicly (ie: owned by noone).


Long view: Patents lapse after 17 years (4.50 / 2) (#12)
by Paul Johnson on Sun Feb 18, 2001 at 05:19:35 AM EST

A crucial point about the speculative patents on genes is that the patents lapse after 17 years.

(BTW, I believe that what these patents do is cover the process of making a particular protien by using the DNA sequence that codes for it, but nobody knows what use the protien might be yet. This gets around the "utility" bit of the patent requirements).

So here we have many DNA sequences effectively patented. That means that the sequences themselves are in the public domain: the raw information cannot be copyrighted or held trade secret in any way. Researchers can easily use the information. Technically this is patent infringement, but as long as you don't make money at it there is no point suing you, any more than RSA are going to sue me for whomping up a little public key demo in Perl.

The vast majority of these sequences will have no particular use for them found within the next 17 years, at which point the patents lapse. Then when a use is found the process of making the protien will be unpatentable.

You are lost in a twisty maze of little standards, all different.

Of possible interest... (3.50 / 2) (#13)
by Alik on Sun Feb 18, 2001 at 11:06:51 AM EST

The USPTO's current rules on genetic patenting (PDF format). If you want to understand what they will and won't let you do (hint: mostly the former), there's no better source.

Practical upshot: they're going to grant patents on anything with a barely-nontrivial utility. They say the law requires them to do so. If you want this stopped, your best bet is currently badgering your congressthings and trying to inflame your community so that they'll do likewise.

Yeah, patents expire in 17 years. However, that's 17 years in which people make money from declaring ownership over a basic part of human life. The last time we had ownership of humans, we called it slavery and fought a war over it. Do we have to do that again?

more... (4.00 / 1) (#14)
by A5triX on Sun Feb 18, 2001 at 04:58:20 PM EST

Economist.com: Science & Profit


Brendon M. Maragia
Human Genome Mapped... and Sold to the Highest Bidder? | 16 comments (15 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
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