Corporations that own your DNA

Did you know that you don’t own your DNA?  Different companies hold the patent to about 41% of your genes.  That means whenever those DNA strands are tested by a doctor, the company collects a royalty.  Later this month, the Supreme Court will hear a case that will potentially rule on whether  human DNA can be patented.
An op-ed by Jeffrey A. Rosenfeld and Christopher E. Mason, two med school professors:

Asked in 1955 whether his polio vaccine was patented, Jonas Salk replied, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” With that, Salk debunked the misguided notion of patenting objects found in nature. His polio vaccine was not a new invention but an inactive form of the natural polio virus.

Today, Salk would be shocked to find that your DNA belongs not to you but rather to many companies and institutions that have patents on the DNA from your cells. Forty-one percent of the genes in your genome are not legally yours, according to a long list of gene patents that have been granted since the 1980s. These patents cover thousands of human genes and restrict a doctor’s ability to look at your DNA and plan your medical treatment. These patent claims contradict an intuitive sense that your DNA is no less yours than your lungs or kidneys.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has a chance to rectify this genetic injustice. The justices will hear oral argument April 15 over a lower federal court’s decision that human genes can be patented. The case involves Myriad Genetics, which received patents in the 1990s for the exclusive right to examine any isolated DNA that contains the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Most people have normal versions of these genes, but those who carry mutations of BRCA usually have an 85 to 90 percent risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. Doctors cannot independently look at the genetic code in a person’s BRCA genes, because as soon as blood is drawn and DNA is isolated to examine those genes, it is immediately the legal property of Myriad Genetics.

Read the rest here:   The Supreme Court should invalidate the patent on human DNA – The Washington Post.

Is this a correct account of the case?  What are the arguments for the other side?

It is surely a fallacy to think “I own my own body so I have the right to do whatever I want with it.”  “You are not your own,” says St. Paul, “for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  But it is also surely a fallacy to think that an economic corporation can claim a property right to a person’s body.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    I’m no legal scholar, but isn’t the testing procedure for the specific genetic traits what is patented and not the DNA itself. At least that should be the angle of argument. I would hope that the Court would allow other firms to use different testing methods on the same genetic material to be allowed under patent law. Also, the question of ownership of property of bodily fluids or other material once it has been removed from the body is a rather weak argument. It is not as if Myriad can enforce the patent law to forcibly extract DNA from people, which is what “ownership” would entail. Again, I think the law should be reframed to patent the process not the material. Here a good precedent would be mineral assayers who used various means to test the quality of gold or silver ores; the assayers didn’t own the gold or silver, but they could charge a decent amount and you needed one to determine the values and traits of your raw product.

  • Pete

    So, as the cells lining my GI tract replicate on a daily basis, I’m involuntarily and subconsciously violating patent laws? Take a hike.

  • helen

    If “ownership”, whether of genes or method of looking at them, means that insurance companies won’t pay the “royalty” and someone who needs a test therefore won’t get one, that could interfere with treatment, not a desirable situation. (If the “victim” uninsured, also bad news, same reason.)

    Of course, nobody will be uninsured in the New World Order.) :(
    sarcasm mode off

  • helen

    If “ownership”, whether of genes or method of looking at them, means that insurance companies won’t pay the “royalty” and someone who needs a test therefore won’t get one, that could interfere with treatment, not a desirable situation. (If the “victim” uninsured, also bad news, same reason.)

    Of course, nobody will be uninsured in the New World Order.) :(
    sarcasm mode off

  • helen

    Sorry about the duplicate! My computer has a mind of its own lately!

  • WebMonk

    Ahhh, it’s so nice to wake up to the smell of hyperventilating headlines!

    “Corporations that own your DNA”

    Over-dramatize much?

  • Joe

    Maybe DonS can shed some light here, he is an IP attorney. That said my understanding is that companies have patented the processes of isolating specific parts of the a strand of DNA (i.e. genes) – not the genes themselves. Thus, you violate someone’s patent if you isolate the gene in the same method that they isolated it.

    Years ago I worked on a patent case where my client challenged another’s patent over the isolation of Taq DNA Polymerase – the stuff that makes it possible for us to do DNA testing in an automated fashion (think OJ, think paternity testing, etc) . No one claimed own to Taq, just the method of isolating it from the DNA of thermus aquaticus (a tiny little organism that can survive at extremely high temperatures). The patent holder claimed that they isolated it by a certain method that was more stable than the method discuss in some prior art. We proved that you cannot isolate taq by the method claimed and proved the patent was a fraud.

  • SKPeterson

    helen – I think it’s the patheos system. It occasionally hangs and wants to duplicate comments; sometimes they’re caught, other times not.

  • Tom Hering

    Yup, it’s a glitch. I recently looked at a thread from the old site, and the archiving here at Patheos has every single comment in it showing up twice.

  • kerner

    Sooooo…….

    If I buy enough stock in these corporations….I will own your DNA!!!!

    Bwahahahahaha!!!!!

  • DonS

    Well, as Joe said @7, I am a patent attorney, but I don’t practice in the genetics field. I am a mechanical engineer and physicist by education, so my focus is on the mechanical arts, as well as medical devices (everyone practicing in Orange County is in that area, by necessity). So, I haven’t spent a great deal of time trying to understand the nuances of this particular case, but I’ll try to explain what I have gleaned in passing.

    Most clearly, the reporter does not understand the nature of patent claiming and the difference between statutory and nonstatutory claims. Your genes in their naturally occurring state are not patented, and you “own” them, such as we “own” anything in or on our bodies. But, it’s nice hyperbole that might sell an extra paper or two. The original patent, as I understand it, included claims to both the specified DNA sequences, in their isolated (not naturally occurring) forms, and methods for isolating them. The district court invalidated the entire patent. The Federal Circuit reversed as to the sequence claims, but affirmed invalidation of some of the method claims, on statutory grounds. The case went up to the Supreme Court because of an appeal by the ACLU and other amici (standing was an issue), and a GVR (Grant, Vacate, and Remand) was issued, ordering the Federal Circuit to reconsider the case because of an intervening ruling (Mayo). The Federal Circuit affirmed its prior ruling on remand, and it is now back before the Court. PatentlyO, a prominent patent blog, summarizes the stance of the case as follows:

    On remand from the Supreme Court (GVR), a three-member panel of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has released its highly anticipated decision in AMP v. Myriad. The key results:

    Affirmed: The courts properly have jurisdiction over the declaratory judgment case.
    Reversed: Myriad’s composition claims to isolated DNAs, including cDNAs fall within the scope of Section 101 patentable subject matter.
    Affirmed: Myriad’s method claims directed to comparing or analyzing gene sequences are not subject matter eligible.
    Reversed: Myriad’s method claim to screening potential cancer therapeutics via in vitro changes is subject matter eligible.

    This decision largely follows the decision previously released by the same panel in 2011.

    The patenting of isolated DNA sequences has long been held to be statutory by the Federal Circuit. However, there seems to be a strong public pressure at this time to overturn that precedent, on the basis that such patents restrict companies from doing valuable research, and restrict diagnostic alternatives for patients at risk for having genes that match the patented sequences. In general, there has been pressure throughout the world to limit or eliminate medical methods patenting for this same reason — many countries do not permit them.

    Of course, the flip side is that you will reduce the incentive to do expensive and difficult medical research by moving in this direction.

    Once the Court rules, it will be up to Congress to fashion any legislative response to the ruling. Of course, this is where the debate should be held anyway.

  • Grace

    Dr. Veith made the statement below:

    “It is surely a fallacy to think “I own my own body so I have the right to do whatever I want with it.” “You are not your own,” says St. Paul, “for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). But it is also surely a fallacy to think that an economic corporation can claim a property right to a person’s body.

    I agree, no, “corporation can claim a property right” to anyone’s body.

    Born Again Believers are indwelt with the HOLY Spirit. The Word of God states very serious words on this subject.

    Another passage of Scripture which is a warning to all Believers.

    16 Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?
    17 If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.
    1 Corinthians 3

    Our bodies belong to the LORD. They are not for us to destroy or kill, as in suicide, and they are not the property of corporations, or anyone, to do with as they choose.

  • theMaritimer

    They can debate this until our Sun goes supernova it does not matter what a court or any person says, all of my DNA in my body is not owned by anyone but myself and any proposed claim in any way at all to it is a lie and play on words. We are all products of Gods will and with that the culmination of all the star dust that has evolved over billions of years to exist up to this point in time as me; not decided, owned or managed by any corporations or any other person(s). Even after death when my essence returns to the source only the Earth shall inherit my DNA so that someday it may serve its purpose again to nature, not perverted by greedy patent harlots.

  • Bonnie

    I was about to comment exactly what SKPeterson said, it should be the PROCESS that is patented, not the genes. But, I have to also say that I am thoroughly amused by the ridiculous notion that any part of my body can be owned by someone else, other than God who created it in the first place.


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