Friday, January 20, 2006

Your Genes Are Patented

No, not those designer disasters you have on there, but the stuff you are made of. Yep. Of the 24,000 genes that control the 100 million cells in our bodies, about 20 percent are patented, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This brings up a logical question: How can genes be subject to patent when they were invented by nature, not corporations, universities, government agencies and nonprofit groups? The answer, according to patent lawyers, is that living things are patentable, as long as they involve the effects of human intervention. That, says the U.S. Supreme Court means they are "made" by humans (1980). The Justices noted that Einstein could not have patented E=mc2, but a bacterium coaxed into metabolizing oil (creating a way to clean up oil spills) was a "product of human ingenuity."

The rapid progress of genetics and biotechnology present some interesting new problems for ethicists and justices. The debate about what man should make started with cloning. Where does patenting life stop? For example, there is the Harvard University OncoMouse, a rodent with an extra gene that predisposes it to contract cancer, a very useful trait in medical research. Should the OncoMouse receive a patent? The U.S. Patent Office issued a patent for it. The Supreme Court of Canada rejected the OncoMouse patent. The European Patent authorities narrowed the scope of the patent to cover the specific strain of mouse, invoking a new proviso that bars patents that threaten morality. Still, our U.S. Patent evaluators do have boundaries. For example, they rejected a patent application for a hypothetical "chimera," a part-human, part animal hybrid." The patent seekers were not actually seeking to create such a creature, but wanted a patent rejection to establish precidence in order to block future patents for hybrid animals.

One thing is clear, biology is quagmire of ethical dilemmas. Oh, don't get your hopes up about any royalities on those patented genes in your body. It seems they are commercial entities only in isolation and that means EXTRACTION. Sounds painful to me.

The Stickler


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