Thursday, October 20, 2005

Somebody Owns 1/5th of You

via Adam, we learn that 20% of the human genome is already patented.
Nearly a fifth of all human genes have been patented - the majority by private biotechnology companies, according to a survey of patent records published today.

The extent to which companies claim ownership of human genes has raised alarm among researchers and led to warnings that by asserting commercial rights over crucial genes, companies risk stifling research into diseases such as breast cancer, diabetes and obesity.

Legal cases triggered by disputes over who owns specific genes and how access to working on them is restricted are also likely in future, the scientists warn....

Writing in the journal Science today, the researchers report that nearly 20% of the human genome, or 4,382 of the known 23, 688 human genes, have been patented, with over half owned by private companies. Around 63% of the patents are assigned to private firms, with one firm, Incyte Pharmaceuticals/Incyte Genomics, having intellectual property rights covering 2,000 human genes.
So ONE firm has the rights to nearly 10% of the stuff that makes you, you. Lovely.

This is part of the reason why biological patents make little to no sense - these companies aren't "creating" anything. They're mapping a natural feature of human biology. "Mapping" may be the best analog, actually. During the ages of exploration, a sailor's maps were closely guarded trade secrets, of course. But nothing really prevented his competitors from going to (say) Cuba and mapping the shoreline for himself.

These patents do exactly that. I'm not saying that these companies don't deserve a patent on the treatments they devise based on the genetic knowledge, but nobody should be able to patent genetic information. To go back to our nautical analogy, imagine if Columbus has managed to charge a monopoly royalty on anyone who wanted to come to the new world? Arguably, this scenario would have been better for the natives, but Spain would've suffered.

If anything, new biological technologies promise even more advances than the conquest of the new world did, and should therefore be kept open to as many new firms and scientists as possible.

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