Can The Companies That Own Your Genes Be Stopped?

A lawsuit aims to take back ownership over your genome from the corporations that claim the building-blocks of life as their property. But is it already too late?

Since 1980, when the U.S. Supreme Court first ruled that a living (but modified) organism could be patented, the Patent and Trademark Office has granted more than 50,000 patents to companies for pieces of the human genetic code.

By now, many of your genes are not your own — they belong to companies and to the for-profit arms of universities, who use their 20-year leases over your genes to exploit them for research and, in most cases, to prevent other companies from doing any competing research. The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a lawsuit against a pharmaceutical company and the University of Utah to get the rights to your genes back.

The lawsuit against Myriad Genetics and the University of Utah involves their patent rights over the BCRA-1 and BCRA-2 gene, which gives them the exclusive right to test women for the presence of those genes, which are strongly correlated with incidence of breast and ovarian cancer. The patent over the genetic markers means that no other test can be developed or utilized by women seeking to determine whether they have the gene and are susceptible to cancer.

A gene patent gives its owner the exclusive right, for up to 20 years, to control its use for medical research, diagnosis or treatment.

"A gene patent holder has the right to prevent anyone from studying, testing or even looking at a gene,'' the ACLU lawsuit protests. "As a result, scientific research and genetic testing has been delayed, limited or even shut down due to concerns about gene patents.''

It's not that they necessarily want women to continue to be stricken with cancer, they just don't want anyone else to make any money off of it, as long as they are.

Congress is considering (as it has nearly every session for the last several years) changes to existing patent law that would make it easier to file — and to win — patent challenges. In the meantime, corporations will continue to hold the sole legal rights to more than 4,382 human genes that you carry in your DNA right now. But I'm sure they can be trusted with that responsibility.

Patenting human genes thwarts research, scientists say [McClatchy]