With genetic diseases affecting one in six people7, it’s little wonder they’re such a diverse problem. There are many reasons why people are for and against gene patenting. So, should genetic patenting be allowed?
Figure 1: Punnet square diagram representing the likelihood of a child with a hereditary disease. D – non-affected gene (dominant) | d – affected gene (recessive).
Genetic diseases are usually those passed on from your parents, but can also occur in the womb. Genes are located in the chromosomes (The structures that carry the genes) of every cell in your body and are made of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), they contain all the information your body uses to control how you grow, develop and function. A genetic disorder is a disease caused in whole or in part when a person’s DNA is changed from its normal sequence. A parent can be a carrier of a disease but may not have the disease. Human genes are either dominant (normal) or recessive (disease causing). When both parents are heterozygous, meaning they both carry the dominant and recessive gene, there is a 25% chance that the child will have the disease, as shown in figures 1 and 2.
The major method used for discovering genes is RNAi (ribonucleic acid interface). In RNAi, genes can be disrupted and the results can then be seen. During RNAi long dsRNA (double strand RNA) is diced into small fragments by an enzyme known as ‘dicer’. These diced sections (known as RNAs) then bind with proteins from the Argonaute family, after binding one strand of dsRNA is removed. The remaining strand can then bind to a target strand following the rules of complementary base pairing. Once joined, the Argonaute protein can either destroy or regulate the target sequence. This information can be used to determine what the gene is.
What is genetic patenting?
A gene patent is the exclusive rights to a certain gene (sequence of DNA) given by a government to the person, business, organization or corporations who is the first to claim they have ‘discovered’ the gene. Once the patent has been approved by the government, the body receiving the patent has full rights to determine how the gene can be used and what can be done with it, usually for 20 years. This means no other body can do any work with the gene, or risk facing a lawsuit. With the money in the millions, the stakes are high with genetic patenting.
The Issue Explained
Humans only have 30000 genes and over 8000 of those have been patented. Genes have become a large area of interest since more and more research shows that people metabolize drugs differently. Patenting constitutes a threat to basic science and should not be allowed said professor David Koespell1. However Myriad genetics, one of the leading genetics company believes that the genes discovered were “never available to the world until their scientists applied their inventive faculties”4. Many agree the monopoly provided by patenting genes harms health, impedes research and raises important ethical questions. However, many also believe it improves health, encourages research and is ethically ok.
One of the leading arguments for why genes should not be patented is because it stifles the ability of other scientists to conduct lifesaving research. Myriad genetics, for example, holds a monopoly over the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, the gene variants which are closely linked with breast and ovarian cancers. Many scientists believe this control means that anyone other than Myriad can’t conduct what could possibly be lifesaving research.
Another reason for genes not being patented is a legal one, US case law and patent statute state that patents can only be awarded for human invention, as the discovery of genes is not an invention. Australian patent laws state that patents can’t be awarded for discovered DNA sequences (correct as of 20/02/2018). Despite these laws, genes have still been patented. Isaac Newton could not have patented the laws of gravity because it is a law of nature. Newton discovered it, he did not invent it1, argues professor Koespell.
There are many ethical arguments against genetic patenting. University of Puget Sound’s Associate Professor Suzanne Holland reflected a fear that patenting reduces human genes to ‘commodities’, something which can be bought and sold when she said, “Biotechnology products are not widgets”. Holland was also concerned that genetic patenting made it ‘ok’ to trade in the very things that make up our individuality and our humanity. There is also concern that granting a patent may allow people or organisations with little or no motivation for human medical advancement to have excessive control over research and development.
While many people think that patenting genes slows research, many others believe that it would have taken many more years to discover various genes if patenting wasn’t an option. If genes can’t be patented people may lose motive and cutting edge methods which cost large amounts of money. In Myriads case for example, it took more than 17 years and $500 million just to break even. If companies can’t patent genes they won’t be able to fund research.
Another argument is that patenting genes still allows some research to be done with them and can in fact encourage broader research. Since Myriad genetics, for example, identified the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes over 18,000 scientists have studied them and there have been over 10,000 research papers released4. Patenting of genes could mean that they can be discovered sooner and in turn be used to improve health sooner.
Much of the ethical debate in the affirmative for genetic patenting, relates more to the level of scrutiny placed on a patent application. Vice President of medical company Affymetrix Thane Kreiner, said in relation to patenting, “It’s not a question of whether patents are right or wrong, but where to set the bar”. It is argued that if patents are applied correctly, benefits to human medical research are great. Director of biotechnology at the Markkula Centre for Applied Ethics, Margaret McLean, while accepting that humans should not be ‘used’, also stated that “DNA patenting doesn’t necessarily imply commodification of human persons.” Rather, distinguishing between genetic identity and personal identity is the key.
There are strong arguments for and against the patenting of genes, genetic research and discoveries. Some believe genetic patenting harms health, impedes research and is ethically unjust. Those in favour of it strongly argue the exact opposite. It appears that for every pro there is a con. There is a consensus that if properly regulated and monitored, genetic patenting can be a positive. Life is indeed a gift. Whether parts of that gift can have copyrights and trademarks drawn upon it is worth thinking about.