Monday, April 15, 2013

Breast Cancer Patients Go to Washington

Today is a big day. Around here it is Patriots Day which means there are parades (mostly yesterday), Revolutionary re-enactments, pancake breakfasts, award ceremonies, a little road race called the Boston Marathon, and a minor hint of spring - its a tropical 32 degrees right now.

In Washington DC, its typical pomp and circumstance, the ego battles, and political denials, as well as oral arguments in the Supreme Court on the patent-ability of human genes and the genome. The ACLU, breast cancer patients, scientists, Biotech companies, and more are all meeting together to hear the oral arguments and then the Supreme Court will make some big decisions.

At the root of the matter is are human genes and the genome patentable? They have been awarded patents in prior years. For example, Myriad Genetics patented BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes using the grounds that they isolated them so they should be able to patent them. Then they developed the breast cancer BRCA tests which they sell for a paltry $3340 and have earned $2.1 billion on these tests. They want to retain their patent because it makes them rich. Some scientists say the gene patents allow them to earn money from their research.

On the other side,  people like the ACLU say they are naturally occurring and therefore should not be patented. And that the patents actually restrict research.

Personally I don't think naturally occurring things should be able to be patented. Does someone want to patent the crab grass in my lawn? Then they can pull it out because I'm not going to pay them for it (free weeding).

Maybe they can patent the tests that are done using the genes but not the genes themselves. Other people could then patent their own tests and there would be competition and someone wouldn't be $2.1 billion richer on a test that some insurance companies won't cover because of the cost. (Patients first please.)

Medical research often includes genetics and molecular level testing these days. Our legal system needs to catch up to current scientific research. If genes are patented, will we have to start tattooing their bodies to show where other people own bits and pieces? What if someone patented the human heart, would they get a fee every time someone had heart surgery. Let's think rationally here.

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