Myriad owns a part of me, Who owns the rest?

[I am re-posting my old blogs. This was originally posted on March 28, 2010]                                                                        Just one day after posting this, on March 29, 2010, a coalition led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) successfully challenged the basis of Myriad’s patents in New York District Court. The patent has been invalidated. 

Note: The following post is pretty lengthy. I tried to cut down on the length, but the subject matter demanded that I don't. All that has been stated in this post is pure non-fiction. Everything is real. I've tried to provide links wherever required, for others, googling should corroborate the facts. This post is a part of a series I am planning to write (whether you like it or not) on Intellectual Property ( I hate to use that word ).

Still not sure what the title means? We are all ignorant fools. We ought to know at least the name of the company which owns us. All right, it does not own us completely, but it owns a small part of you , me , Obama ,Sachin, Madonna.. you name them. Well, Myriad Genetics is a bio-pharma company which owns patents on BRCA genes, there are two of them: BRCA1 and BRCA2. Not that the cryptic names matter. And 2 genes out of 23,688 human genes and I am cribbing about it!! Surely, I must be paranoid. Take this: A 2005 study found that 4,382 of the 23,688 human genes in the National Center for Biotechnology Information's gene database are explicitly claimed as intellectual property. Do the math, and you will find out that about 20% of any human is owned by one of those MNCs. So, what makes these 2 BRCA genes special that I singled them out of the roughly 4000 already patented genes? Let me elaborate.

BRCA genes are present in everyone of us. Genes are just like pieces of programming code. Sometimes they work fine. And as all of us would have experienced, a small bug in the code can cause a lot of problems. A normally functioning BRCA gene suppresses Breast Cancer. Women who have some sort of "bugs" in their BRCA genetic code are more susceptible to Breast Cancer. That is great news!! It gives us an opportunity to find out if we are more susceptible to cancer than the average person even before we contract the disease. Medicine is marvellous. So is the business that one can make out of medicine. Myriad, by patenting the genes, effectively has control over anything that can be done on the genes, including testing if you are one of the more disadvantaged ones, forget about getting genetic therapy.

Excerpts from http://www.aclu.org/free-speech/brca-genes-and-patents:

Myriad has patents on both the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic sequences, as well as any mutations along those genes. That means, if you were to take the gene you have in your body right now and remove it from all the other biological material that surrounds it, you would be committing patent infringement regardless of how or why you did it. Myriad also has patents on any methods for locating mutations, whether those methods are known now or not.

This means that no one will be able to offer help in even finding out how to cure the disease except Myriad. It is not that Myriad has already found out how to cure the disease. NO. It has acquired a virtual monopoly over breast cancer. Other corporations are barred from conducting their own research and coming out with ways of curing it. Is this what we call a free market? Getting into the economics aspect of medicine, ever wondered why anti-retroviral drugs are some of the costliest? Now is the time to wonder. For the less informed, anti-retroviral drugs are used in combating HIV.

Cells from a human spleen … mice that are genetically predisposed to get cancer … bacteria that can digest oil … an extract from a tree native to India … There are at least two features that these all have in common:

They are derived from living creatures
They have been patented as "human inventions"

One would have to thank the brilliant buccaneer of science, Craig Venter, for he was the one who came up with the idea that genes could be patented. He was the first person, along with NIH, to apply for patents on genes. His company, Celera Genomics Group, has applied for patents on 6,500 human genes. It's anybody's guess on what the company intends to do with those patents. Oh, I almost completely forgot to introduce Mr.Venter. He takes pride in cracking the human genome code, he is the head of the unofficial Human Genome Project. The original project was initially headed by James Watson. (Ref: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/487773.stm)

The argument that most of the proponents of patents on life forms put forth is that they innovated in changing the naturally occurring genetic sequence and hence, the new life form thus brought into existence is not a product of nature but a product of human ingenuity. I leave it to the discretion of the readers on the ingenuity of the argument. Really, some arguments are so silly they don't merit a debate. I do not know if the above argument falls in the same category.

We all know that every off-spring of ours has a new genetic sequence ( due to the various permutations that take place during meosis ) called random mutations. Tomorrow's world looks scary : If my child is born with a mutation that has naturally occurred in him, but that mutation has already been patented by some company, will the child be mine or the company's or will I be put in jail for bearing such a child? Or if I am exposed to some sort of radiation , say due to nuclear war , and my genes are mutated, will I become a product of some company?

Before I wind up this post, I would like you all to think about this: If you consider patenting genes ( which are nothing but snippets of code which build and sustain life ) to be gross and unfair, how can one support patents on pieces of programming code,viz., Software Patents? I will return to that aspect in my next post.