In 2009, the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark) Office granted the 50,000th gene patent (Cook-Deegan and Heaney). A gene patent is the legally private license to a specific ordering of nucleotides, such as DNA, bestowed upon the group or company that is supposed to have discovered the purpose of the gene (“Can genes be patented? – Genetics Home Reference”). The argument over whether gene patenting should be legal has been waging since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2001 (Jost).
Onwards from 2001, over 60,000 gene patents have been filed to date (Stone). However, the debate boiled over in 2009 when the Public Patent Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union (ACL) filed a suit against Myriad Genetics over their patents of the naturally-occurring genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2 (Jost). Myriad used the patents over these two genes that are known to be strongly correlated with breast and ovarian cancers to gain a monopoly over other companies looking to perform research on those same sequences of DNA. It was argued that the patents filed by Myriad Genetics was ultimately unethical due to the impacts it had on breast and ovarian cancer patients needing new and more effective treatments. From this suit, the United States Supreme Court ruled that only man-made or editted genes may be patented, not naturally-occurring ones (Than). Though many would agree with the Court’s decision, the protection of rights to individual genes or sequences of nucleotides would promote interest in the discovery of genetic functions. Those against the re-establishment of gene patents are worried that the patents would give companies or individuals “ownership” of their DNA, or that gene patents would impede new discoveries and create monopolies. On the other hand, supporters of gene patents believe that the patents would serve as a reward to those who further knowledge in the field of genetics, encouraging research and leading to new developments (Geoffrey).
While gene patents do give certain groups the sole rights to a genetic sequence, as correctly believed by those against them, they also act as an incentive for more people to put in the time and money needed to conduct any experiments or procedures needed to find the purpose of those genes. Certainly, the protection of the rights to a certain genetic sequence for testing and product development can hinder research directed by external corporations, but once the patent expires the gene can be studied by anyone who wishes to, with a set function already known. Though it may seem that both sides of the argument want completely different things, it’s actually true that both positions wish to push scientific development in the field of genomics and open more possibilities for the future of medicine.
As said by GenEngNews, “Society agrees that research is valuable and encourages it through billions of dollars of taxpayer-funded grants” (Geoffrey). The patent system put in place by the United States government guarantees legal protections to inventions and new ideas. Though non-edited genes are neither “inventions” nor “new ideas,” giving the option to a group for the protection of rights over a discovered gene offers many benefits. According to The Balance, a financial news blog, the Biotechnology Industry Organization responded to the Myriad case:In many cases, gene-based patents are critical for a biotech company’s ability to attract the capital and investment necessary for the development of innovative diagnostic, therapeutic, agricultural and environmental products. Thus, the issues raised in this case are of great importance to the U.S. biotechnology industry.
(Stone) Clearly, legal protections over discovered genes are vital to the growth and maturation of the medical, pharmaceutical, and biotechnological industries. Additionally, those against gene patents are mainly concerned over their usage when it comes to human genes, while in fact, most gene patents put in place are for GMO products (Cook-Deegan and Heaney). Many GMOs make use of non-edited genes from living organisms, so they would not fall under the rulings of gene patents today. GMO foods range from supermarket goods to the famous “golden rice”, which has provided poorer countries with extra nutrition. With agriculture becoming an increasingly large part of the world economy as the human population grows, it’s essential to reward corporations that are able to find ways to better support our crops.
In order for the human species to adapt to the changing world and environment, it’s important that we are readily able to engineer our own food supply. Besides the point of GMOs and medicine, the United States could lead other countries economically with the establishment of a genetic patent system. The findings of American biotech companies can be used as an example and intellectual export to the biological industries of other nations.
As written by Robert Cook-Deegan and Christopher Heaney, “Genomics and human genetics are scientifically fundamental and commercially valuable” (Cook-Deegan and Heaney). Despite the valid points presented against the establishment of a gene patent system, protecting the rights of usage and research to a corporation for a gene is absolutely necessary for the future of agriculture, medicine, and pharmacology. The new uncoverings of genetic functions can allow us to provide personalized medicinal care and pave the way for new foodstuffs, such as insect-resistant crops. To secure our future as a species, now is a great time to encourage research and scientific pioneering.