In the Canadian science fiction television series Orphan Black, actress Tatiana Maslany discoveries that she and her cloned “sisters” harbor a DNA sequence which when deciphered turns out to be a patent!
Perhaps this sounds far-fetched until we learn that “the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) has launched a legal challenge against the U.S. patent holders of genes related to a rare heart disorder. The legal action, a first in Canada, focuses on whether genes should be patented.”
Researcher Christopher Mason with the Weill Cornell Medical College told CBC in a recent interview “the patents already given for thousands of genes means you don’t own your own genetic material.”
Actually this is not a new concept at all. There are laws going back millennia dealing with the “ownership” of DNA. The concept is called “slavery”.
Wars have been fought, rebellions have been declared and many, many people died in an attempt to defeat this institution.
Of course we can argue that what is being patented is not the person but the plan, much as an architect might own the design for a house but the building belongs to the person who contracted the work. But what does this mean to you personally if you believe that the architect in question is named “God”? Courts and businesses are treading on tenuous ground here.
Granted, much medical research these days involves the use of DNA and the survival of free enterprise businesses depends on making a profit. The CEO of one such firm, Myriad Genetics is quoted as saying: “Countless companies and investors have risked billions of dollars to research and develop scientific advances under the promise of strong patent protection.”
The crux of the matter is that for many, the patented ownership of DNA is morally abhorrent, yet crucial research into cancer, genetic diseases and other areas may be dependent on some form of patent protection.
Like it or not, most of the current medical advances from which we benefit have been discovered or developed and disseminated through private enterprise.
What’s the solution?
Personally, I don’t think anyone should own or hold a patent on someone else’s DNA. The whole idea is morally repugnant. Maybe a solution would be that the processes involved in using the DNA for beneficial purposes could be patented, but that the genetic material in question does not become property.
Perhaps this complicates things a bit…but, hey, there are a lot of underemployed lawyers out there chasing ambulances and forging class action suits against manufacturers of hangnail remedies gone bad.
Let them figure it out.
DNA Molecule – Wikimedia Creative Commons