Talk about a change of heart! A recent ruling was released a few days ago from the US Department of Justice on the topic of genetic intellectual property laws, barring companies and individuals from claiming patents on isolated genetic sequences. For those of you unfamiliar with this incredibly complex and controversial field, it essentially involves the question of whether or not any entity can “own” the rights to a particular sequence of the human genome.
Granted, this isn’t “own” as in “Hi, I’m Genencorp and I own your genes, now give them to me.” It’s a much more abstract and subtle sense of ownership. However, this still has a strong impact on the world of biological research and possibly on the lives of everyone.
Instead of claiming ownership over the genes themselves, companies claim intellectual property ownership of particular sequences within the genome, usually in order to protect a particular drug or research finding that is profitable to them. For example, say I own a genetics company that has poured millions of dollars into researching a particular area of the human genome that I think is linked with diabetes, we’ll call it “gene XYZ.” I’ve spent a considerable amount of time and money trying to understand this aspect of human genetics, and I’ve only done this with the expectation that I can leverage what I find into a sizeable profit.
This, many biotechnology companies argue, is only made possible with intellectual property – essentially, an official recognition of your ownership over a particular idea, as well as a kind of “cease and desist” order for any other organization looking to profit or use that idea without paying you first. In sum, without the ability to claim the rights to particular sequences within a genome, there would be no incentive to research them because others could swoop in and profit without doing any of the R&D in the first place. Without IP, there would be little genetic research progress.
However, there is another side to this story as well. It might be slightly unsettling to think that some corporation might own your genetic code. And you’d have a good point, too, because there are already many IP laws banning organizations from patenting “naturally occurring” aspects of nature. Research enterprises have historically gotten around these laws by asserting that their work is not on “naturally occurring” tissue. Because they isolate the genes they study from their natural place in a strand of DNA, companies have argued that this constitutes an “artificial” or “man-made” genetic sequence. This loophole has allowed countless numbers of genetic sequences to be patented, however, that might all change soon.
The US Department of Justice has recently made an about-face regarding their position on these issues. While isolated DNA was once considered to be “artificial” enough to be patented, a recent ruling determined that these sequences of DNA are still a part of naturally-occurring life, and thus are not patentable. This has sent the biotechnology community into quite a fit, with numerous groups suggesting that their entire business model depends on their ability to claim ownership over these tiny strands of genetic code.
Granted, this won’t be resolved any time soon…this is but one step in what will certainly be a long legal battle between the biotechnology companies and various courts. However, it also marks an important philosophical shift on the part of the US government towards recognizing the importance that no individual claim ownership over the building blocks of life. Keep an eye on this one, it’s bound to get interesting.