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.
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.