Science Scope

You don't own all of your genes

Posting in Cancer

Did you know that 20 percent of your genes are patented? Are patents necessary for innovation?

To patent or not to patent, that is the question.

There's a slight problem with patenting genes, as I mentioned in a previous post:

In theory, patents are supposed to encourage innovation. But as more companies own your genes, the whole business of gene patenting has been put into doubt. The real tragedy occurs when the right of a patent overrides the right of a patient. And this can happen when a company has an exclusive license, the patient can’t get a second-opinion test and is stuck with the one test. That’s exactly what the Myriad patent was doing.

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (linked to breast and ovarian cancer) were licensed exclusively to Myriad Genetics, until the US Southern District Court of New York invalidated them. As Myriad appeals the court’s decision, the biotech community bites its fingernails, worried about what this means for the other thousands of genes that have been patented since the 1980s.

In fact, 20 percent of our genes are patented. Dr. David Koepsell reminds us of that fact when he talks to Singularity Hub about the aftermath of the Myriad case.

But as far as the old argument that biotech companies need patent protection for investment purposes and to keep research moving forward, Koepsell thinks otherwise. He actually thinks gene patents are not essential to development and the free market can work itself out.

Koepsell is not the alone in his thinking. I wrote earlier that:

Beyond the patent system, there are other ways to reward innovation. For more than a hundred years, the patent system has incentivized discovery, but this winner take all approach might be outdated. Caltech researchers found that the market economy can inspire more innovation than our patent system. Simply put, let investors buy and sell shares off their invention. Even if you do away with the patent system entirely, people would still invent. Creativity and intellectual curiosity are part of human nature.

He also discusses the future of genetic research — it's headed towards synthetic biology and away from nanotechnology. Building our own nature seems to be the way to go to do the things we think nanotechnology can accomplish.

But does this mean patents will give Craig Venter a monopoly over synthetic life?

Koepsell's book, Who Owns You, is going to take on another form. Watch the trailer for the documentary:

Photo: Dollar Bin/ flickr

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure