You Don't "Own" Your Own Genes
RESEARCHERS RAISE ALARM ABOUT LOSS OF INDIVIDUAL "GENOMIC LIBERTY" DUE TO GENE PATENTS THAT MAY IMPACT THE ERA OF PERSONALIZED MEDICINE
NEW YORK (March 25, 2013) — Humans don't "own" their own genes, the cellular chemicals that define who they are and what diseases they might be at risk for. Through more than 40,000 patents on DNA molecules, companies have essentially claimed the entire human genome for profit, report two researchers who analyzed the patents on human DNA. Their study, published March 25 in the journal Genome Medicine, raises an alarm about the loss of individual "genomic liberty."
In their new analysis, the research team examined two types of patented DNA sequences: long and short fragments. They discovered that 41 percent of the human genome is covered by longer DNA patents that often cover whole genes. They also found that, because many genes share similar sequences within their genetic structure, if all of the "short sequence" patents were allowed in aggregate, they could account for 100 percent of the genome.
Furthermore, the study's lead author, Dr. Christopher E. Mason of Weill Cornell Medical College, and the study's co-author, Dr. Jeffrey Rosenfeld, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey and a member of the High Performance and Research Computing Group, found that short sequences from patents also cover virtually the entire genome — even outside of genes.
"If these patents are enforced, our genomic liberty is lost," says Dr. Mason, an assistant professor of physiology and biophysics and computational genomics in computational biomedicine at the Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Weill Cornell. "Just as we enter the era of personalized medicine, we are ironically living in the most restrictive age of genomics. You have to ask, how is it possible that my doctor cannot look at my DNA without being concerned about patent infringement?"
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Can Corporations Own Your DNA?
It's hard to believe, but private companies hold the patent rights to some of the genes in your body. The companies say the patents help them develop new treatments for serious diseases. But this week, a group of cancer patients and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit claiming the patents put them in danger, reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews
After facing and surviving breast cancer, Genae Gerard simply had to know more. A widely available genetic test - known as the BRAC test - revealed that she carried the gene BRCA 2, which also put her at higher risk for ovarian cancer.
When she tried to look for an alternate test for a second opinion, she learned no that other tests are permitted.
"You cannot get a second opinion on the BRAC testing because there's only one company that does it," Gerard said. "That's the problem."
That one company, Utah-based Myriad, doesn't just own the test. It was able to patent the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 - the genes most often linked to breast and ovarian cancer. And owning the patent essentially means that Myriad owns the genes themselves.
"Common sense should tell everybody that it's wrong to allow a private company to own a body part," ACLU attorney Chris Hansen said.
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