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Can We Patent Life?

Michael Specter writes for the New Yorker and discusses the question: Can we patent life?

Excerpt: The intellectual and commercial bounty from that research has already been enormous, and it increases nearly every day, as we learn ways in which specific genes are associated with diseases—or with mechanisms that can prevent them. It took thousands of scientists and technicians more than a decade to complete the Human Genome Project, and cost well over a billion dollars. The same work can now be carried out in a day or two, in a single laboratory, for a thousand dollars—and the costs continue to plummet. As they do, we edge closer to one of modern science’s central goals: an era of personalized medicine, in which an individual’s treatment for scores of illnesses could be tailored to his specific genetic composition. That, of course, assumes that we own our own genes.

And yet, nearly twenty per cent of the genome—more than four thousand genes—are already covered by at least one U.S. patent. These include genes for Alzheimer’s disease, colon cancer, asthma, and two in particular—BRCA1 and BRCA2—that are highly associated with breast cancer. Myriad Genetics, a company that specializes in molecular diagnostics, holds the rights to those two genes. Anyone conducting an experiment on them without a license can be sued for infringement of patent rights. This means that Myriad can decide what research is carried out on those genes, who can do that research, and how much any resulting therapy or diagnostic test will cost. The same holds true for other genes and for any pharmaceutical company, scientist, or university that holds patents similar to those held by Myriad.

Read the full article here.

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