"There is no question we have a problem," Dr. Bellarmino said, not looking at his notes. He had memorized his testimony so he could deliver it while facing the television cameras, for greater impact. "Gene patents by industry post a significant problem for future research. on the other hand, gene patentintg by academic researchers causes far less concern, since the work is freely shard."Michael Crichton isn't shy about infusing his novels with his personal opinions about science and scientists. His 2006 novel Next, for example, takes aim at the practice of patenting of DNA sequences or gene patents. As Crichton pointed out in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, such gene patents aren't just an annoyance. They can end up preventing patients form getting the genetic tests they need and squelching biomedical research. As he put it:
Of course this was nonsense. Dr. Bellarmino did not mention that the distinction between academic and industry workers had long since been blurred. Twenty percent of academic researchers were paid by industry. Ten percent of academics did drug development. More than 10 percent had a product already on the market. More than 40 percent had applied for patents in the course of their careers.
Nor did Bellarmino mention that he, too, pursued gene patents aggressively.
~ Next by Michael Crichton (2006)
Gene patents slow the pace of medical advance on deadly diseases. And they raise costs exorbitantly: a test for breast cancer that could be done for $1,000 now costs $3,000. Why? Because the holder of the gene patent can charge whatever he wants, and does. Couldn’t somebody make a cheaper test? Sure, but the patent holder blocks any competitor’s test. He owns the gene. Nobody else can test for it. In fact, you can’t even donate your own breast cancer gene to another scientist without permission. The gene may exist in your body, but it’s now private property.Crichton mentions proposed legislation that would prohibit the patenting of "human genetic material". That bill, the "Genomic Research and Accessibility Act", apparently never made it out of committee. However, a couple of weeks ago, the ACLU, professional groups representing more than 150,000 scientists and several breast cancer survivors filed suit against Myriad Genetics over their breast cancer gene patents. Their monopoly over mutated versions of the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 has become a significant hardship for anyone who wants to find out whether they have inherited these DNA sequences that can lead to breast and ovarian cancer.
[Myriad] charges $3,000 per test, which often isn’t covered by insurance. No one else can offer the test, and researchers can’t develop new or cheaper ones (or new therapies for that matter) unless they get permission from Myriad and pay a steep licensing fee. So women have no choice about who performs their tests, and they can’t seek those second opinions. That is no small thing. Tests aren’t 100 percent accurate, and results sometimes come back inconclusive. Women with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations have a 40 to 85 percent chance of developing breast cancer, so a positive result helps them decide whether to have their breasts and ovaries removed to prevent future cancer. But with its lawsuit, the ACLU isn’t just fighting Myriad’s patent—it hopes to end the practice of gene patenting entirely on the grounds that it’s illegal, unconstitutional, and interfering with science.As Rebecca Skloot discusses in her article about the suit, the ACLU is claiming that gene patents violate the patent law that say no products of nature can be patented*. They are also claiming that such patents inhibit individuals' First Amendment rights "to know about their own genetic makeup, doctors’ rights to provide their patients with crucial medical information, and scientists’ rights to study the human genome and develop new treatments and genetic tests." If the ACLU prevails, it could have significant implications for the biotech industry.
Not surprisingly, science fiction has been grappling (toying?) with the issue of patents for many years. You can even get a patent-related SF fix for free:
- Listen to a reading of Nancy Kress's "Patent Infringement" at Escape Pod, in which a patient confronts a biotech company that has used his tissue to develop a patented sequence for gene therapy.
- Read "The Professional Approach" by "Leonard Lockard" - the pen name of Charles Leonard Harness (who was both a patent attorney and SF writer) and Theodore Lockhard Thomas. You can also listen to the story at LibriVox. This is organic chemistry fiction with some hardcore patent prosecution.
Tags:science fiction, gene patents