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May 1, 2001
8:30 AM   Subscribe

Last week I was watching a Nova program on PBS called 'Cracking the Code of Life', which brought to my attention a disturbing fact about the process of mapping the Human Genome; private companies have applied for patents for gene sequences that they've mapped. Many of these patents were applied for before the government began the Human Genome Project. Although the patent office has put these applications on hold until it figures out what to do with them, many drug companies an researchers won't work with a gene sequence if there is a patent application outstanding. You can get involved yourself by petitioning against patents on life.
posted by Sal Amander (22 comments total)

 
I'm not sure how much the public really understands why knowing the sequence of human DNA is so important. It's not the stuff that's different between us that's important (eye color, height, etc). Mass media likes to make it sound like we'll be able to engineer people in the next two or three years, but that's really not the important thing. The cool stuff is what's the same between us. For instance, we all have white blood cells. All intercellular communication occurs by the presentation of carbohydrate/protein receptors on the cell surface. All cell in out bodies share the same sets of receptors. So, if a white blood cell has a certain protein "tag" on its surface it uses to hunt down bacteria, if we can sequence the protein, we can sequence the RNA that coded for it, and once we have the RNA code, we can invert it, get the DNA code, and just do a pattern match search (heck, "grep" would work on a fast enough computer). Once we've found the section of DNA that codes for that protein, we can engineer the protein to be better/worse/more specific, etc.

I hope that makes a little more sense and helps everyone understand why sequencing the genome was such a big deal.
posted by chemicalpilate at 8:47 AM on May 1, 2001


sideline question: how effective are petitions?
posted by kv at 8:48 AM on May 1, 2001


I was about to hit the Send button on my e-mail to join the petition when I decided to find more about this Council and found it's headed by Ralph Nader's sister. I really want to support this petition but it should be a grass-roots petition completely, not politically oriented.

I keep thinking that all this (race to own our genetic codes) will inevitably lead to some sort of revolution, or at least violence, sometime down the road. Much like in the past (in my country at least) when certain groups in power controlled dams and rivers, and who could receive the water they needed and when. Obviously the people affected were left with no options but to take action and reclaim what rightfully belonged to them/everyone.

Those who won't learn from History...
posted by tremendo at 9:02 AM on May 1, 2001


I hope that makes a little more sense and helps everyone understand why sequencing the genome was such a big deal.

Agreed! Mapping the genome is the greatest accomplishment in the history of mankind. Not to demean other great accomplishments, but by comparison, putting man on the moon was like a grade school field trip.
posted by Sal Amander at 9:10 AM on May 1, 2001


Mapping the genome is the greatest accomplishment in the history of mankind.

Can you expand on why? I don't want to demean *this* accomplishment either, but it seems like simple a patient, careful use of the technology that had become available. What makes it so much greater than, say, the development of agriculture (my candidate) or the peopling of the Americas, or the industrial revolution, or the wheel, or boats, or [your candidate here]?
posted by rodii at 9:32 AM on May 1, 2001


Can you expand on why?

Because now that the sequences have been mapped, we have the 'parts list' to the human body. This changes how researchers and scientists will look for cures for disease. See chemicalpilate's post above, and be sure to view the NOVA program, which is now online, and you will see just how important this really is.
posted by Sal Amander at 9:46 AM on May 1, 2001


As a doctor I agree that the mapping of the human gene (HUGO) is probably of great importance. It gives new opportunities, although not in the near future! Of course it's not the "greatest accomplishment in the history of mankind". We don't know what's still to come.......
But the main question remains. Is it ethical to put a patent on a gene sequence? Why not? Pharmaceutical companies only wanna make money and the reason that "researchers won't work with a gene sequence if there is a patent application outstanding" is that it is to expensive and there's no profit. Do you really think they gonna give their gene therapies away. No, they want to make money. Everything they develop has a price.
Taxol, an effective breast cancer treatment, was originally a natural product found in trees. If a pharmaceutical company hadn't patent it, thousands of women would not benefit from the treatment. So why is it okay to patent a 'natural occurring substance', but not a 'gene sequence'?
That's the way it works. Profits cause progress. So, if you found a gene sequence (a task that usually costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time), why not patent it and make some profit to initiate new developments?
posted by nonharmful at 10:06 AM on May 1, 2001


Why not patent? Because our genome does not BELONG to anyone. The French view the genome as belonging to everyone--the society--whereas we Americans view stretches of the CODE OF LIFE as something someone can own, or have control over. That's why it's wrong.

Familiarize yourself with the qualifications for a patent.

One major qualification? It must "be novel (that is, it must be different from all previous inventions in some important way)." Since we all share 99.9% of the same genetic code, and they're not patenting the code for blue eyes, or white skin, then their gene sequence is not novel. "An invention is considered novel when it is different from all previous inventions (called "prior art") in one or more of its constituent elements. " Seeing how there's billions of examples of prior art, I think the Patent Office stinks to high heaven. I wouldn't be surprised to see Patent Office lobbying from the drug and biotech companies.

In a wonderfully symbolic move, a British woman tried to patent herself (so her genes couldn't be used by others). She said, “It has taken 30 years of hard labor for me to discover and invent myself, and now I wish to protect my invention from unauthorized exploitation, genetic or otherwise.”

In order to get a Huntington's test, you have to pay a royalty fee to the company that owns the patent.
posted by gramcracker at 11:26 AM on May 1, 2001


> Taxol, ... was originally a natural product found in trees. If a pharmaceutical company hadn't patent it, thousands of women would not benefit from the treatment.

You don't mean it no longer exists naturally, do you? Maybe they should own a patent for a particular exploitation method, or perhaps a completely artificial alternative, based on the naturally occurring substance. But they shouldn't be able to prevent me from using the Taxol I can find on a tree to treat a cancer.

> So why is it okay to patent a 'natural occurring substance', but not a 'gene sequence'?

It's not Ok. It's as ridiculous as someone owning a patent on water, or on houses. Clearly there are cases in which the public good has more importance than any lucre a company may claim for having thought of patenting something first (note I didn't say inventing).

> That's the way it works. Profits cause progress...

Sorry, I have to disagree. I am a capitalist and I do understand that profits can be a great incentive for people to innovate, but Watson & Crick where not driven by profits. Even if they were, wouldn't a patent on genes by ultimately based on their work, so they --following your criteria-- would have to be compensated. Would Mendel have to be compensated too? it's a little late for that. Would William Harvey deserve retribution? How about Galeno?

Profit is not the only force that drives progress. Thankfully.
posted by tremendo at 11:37 AM on May 1, 2001


I thought this was a fascinating account of how the human genome project came together. I was a little disappointed that it didn't include that Santa Cruz-based Computer Science guy who "saved" the public project at the last second, allowing them to catch up with the private folks.

Anyone know more about that guy?
posted by ph00dz at 12:44 PM on May 1, 2001


The reason I consider the mapping to be of such great importance is that, starting now, we don't have to wait for random mutations for evolution. Genetic manipulation means that we're directly taking control of our evolutionary path, and now we have a map.

We've yet to figure out which way is north, but that will come.
posted by cCranium at 12:53 PM on May 1, 2001


>Because our genome does not BELONG to anyone.


But who does nature belong to? So why patent Taxol or Digitalis (a herb that was found to stimulate cardiac output). It is not so much a patent on nature or humans but a patent on possible treatments.



> I am a capitalist and I do understand that profits can be a great incentive for people to innovate, but Watson & Crick where not driven by profits. Even if they were, wouldn't a patent on genes by ultimately based on their work, so they --following your criteria-- would have to be compensated.


The times are changing. I doubt if Watson & Crick would be able to do research without a possible economic benefit if they did research in this day and age. I think that if they "discovered" DNA in the year 2001, the first thing they had to do, was run to the nearest patent office.



All this doesn't mean I agree with the principle but economics seem to rule the world. I know for a fact (personal experience) it rules scientific research, especially medical research.


And of course profits aren't the only thing that drives progress but nowadays it's an important reason for progress (especially in research).
posted by nonharmful at 2:05 PM on May 1, 2001


But the main question remains. Is it ethical to put a patent on a gene sequence?
Notwithstanding the debate on whether the info really belongs to humankind/society --- one problem is that companies are patenting gene sequences that simply happen to look promising. The real hard work of determining the function of that sequence, how it is expressed/controlled, etc. (that is to say, the useful information) has still to be done.

So, such patents are rewarding the routine discovery, not the truly skilled, useful research. It's an inappropriate reward, granted to the easiest step in the process (as explained at the Human Genome Project Information site).

This is why it's different to patenting a plant that you've discovered has specific medicinal uses. It's like finding a plant that "ooh, smells funny", and then claiming reward when someone else works out how to cure cancer with it.
posted by chrismear at 3:13 PM on May 1, 2001


But that's what they do with most pharmaceuticals. They don't wait to patent until they've got the cure figured out; they patent as soon as they observe a promising lead--maybe not "ooh, it smells funny," but something relatively easy to check, like "inhibits microtubule formation" or something. They have to patent early, or else one of their competitors would be on that lead before they can take their product to clinical trials.

In the case of Taxol, they no longer use the natural source because it's not produced at high enough levels from the tree to be able to meet the commercial demand. They now use a semisynthetic route from a similar compound isolated in much larger quantities from a related bush. But, see, that's why it's important to patent the structure of the compound itself, not just the process for obtaining it. Otherwise, somebody would figure out a different way of making your drug, and *poof*, you got no patent.
posted by shylock at 3:35 PM on May 1, 2001


I'm not so concerned about the patents, because I don't think they'll stand up to challenge. (Grabs balls.) I got yer prior art right here...
posted by anildash at 3:37 PM on May 1, 2001


I recall a story about a guy who dug up a wildflower in Africa, brought it back home and then got a plant patent on it. Someone else later dug up the same kind of flower from Africa and started selling it and the first goofball sued them. These types of patents are evil.
posted by bargle at 5:01 AM on May 2, 2001


shylock said:
"But, see, that's why it's important to patent the structure of the compound itself, not just the process for obtaining it. Otherwise, somebody would figure out a different way of making your drug, and *poof*, you got no patent."

But that process inhibits, of course, any progress in developing cheaper methods to produce drugs, which means that exorbitant prices can persist, to the detriment of people who can't afford to buy said drugs... Let me suggest that this competition for cheaper methods of producing drugs has been in the past a motive force behind the globalization of medical advancements...
As for profit being a primary motive behind most "scientific progress" I disagree strongly. The arrival of the money driven scientist on center stage has ushered us into an era where scientific progress is becoming more difficult as patents and confidentiality agreements destroy what used to be an open web of scientific inquiry.
Take note also that in fields not driven (mainly) by greed (such as cosmology or pure math), there have been enormous strides of progress during the last few decades...
posted by talos at 6:45 AM on May 2, 2001


On your first point, Talos, given the high cost of large-scale chemical synthesis, there's always motivation on the part of a pharmaceutical company to get to cheaper, more efficient processes. Taxol, for example, was so efficacious that it hit the market before there was a cheap synthetic route to it.

As for profit-driven scientific discovery, I'd refer you to the history of the human genome project. The public project was started in 1990, and by 1999 it was still plodding along, sequencing the genome using conventional methods at a huge cost to the government. Then a private company called Celera developed a new method--what founder Craig Venter colloquially calls "shotgun sequencing"--that allowed the whole genome to be sequenced in about four months.

I'm not saying it's right. I'm sure as hell not saying that all scientific research should be done for profit. But it can't be denied that profit motive is a powerful incentive for scientific discovery.
posted by shylock at 9:46 AM on May 2, 2001


>I'm not saying it's right. I'm sure as hell not saying that all scientific research should be done for profit. But it can't be denied that profit motive is a powerful incentive for scientific discovery.

My point exactly, Shyloc.
posted by nonharmful at 10:06 AM on May 2, 2001


> But it can't be denied that profit motive is a powerful incentive for scientific discovery

No it can't be denied, as it can't be denied that it's not the only incentive. Most scientist I know (in fields of environmental studies) are very motivated by ego (mostly), by the love to their profession, by the responsibility they feel they owe to their surroundings, by curiosity and by the sense that they're doing something important. And of course, there has to be someone to back them up.
posted by tremendo at 10:28 AM on May 2, 2001


Remember this spoof that The Onion did a while ago? Well what's different here, except now we're talking about the letters A, C, G, and T? Gene patenting sounds like a joke, but it isn't!
posted by Sal Amander at 11:52 AM on May 2, 2001


Interesting addition to the genome story. The academians are accusing Celera Genomics (the private group that used their "shotgun sequencing" techniques to finish the genome quickly) of "faulty work."
posted by gramcracker at 7:13 PM on May 2, 2001


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