I learned the other day that a federal judge overturned patents on genes. It wasn’t the verdict that surprised me as much as it was the fact that anyone would have the audacity to have applied for such a patent in the first place. How could they patent DNA, something that every living thing on this planet possesses? They might’ve discovered the genes among the seemingly inscrutable swirls and loops of DNA, but they were always there. Generally, you patent things that you create.
Trying to patent genes is like Columbus trying to patent the entirety of the western hemisphere. Or Peary trying to patent the North Pole. Or Newton trying to patent gravity. Or you trying to patent the moon. Or a baby trying to patent her feet. It’s there. It’s been there longer than our kind have been walking upright. You have to have some serious cojones to claim ownership of these things. The moon belongs to all of us, as does the human genome.
Those who cheered the ruling contend that it will mean that tests can be developed to test for genes like those that cause breast cancer, tests that will compete, both in availability and cost, with the monoply held by a patent-holder. I would concede that their specific test is their intellectual property, and therefore patentable, but the genes themselves are not, and information about them should be made available to the entire world. However, had the patents held up, they would’ve had to get paid every time someone else developed a test that looked for or at those genes.
The patent-holders, though, argue that this will be a major blow to the amount of research and development corporate science will be willing to engage in if there is inadequate profit to be made on potential discoveries. They complain that with no incentive, research will be focused on non-genetic areas that may prove to be ultimately profitable.
Let’s put that in plain English: “We will make no attempt to cure cancer if we can’t get rich off of it.” That’s what they’re saying; the threat is implied but abundantly clear: We are to understand that if we don’t accept it as their right to profit off the cure, people are going to die, people we love.
I may be naively humane, but it seems to me that there’s a not inconsiderable incentive for curing cancer in CURING CANCER. Indeed, it’s one of our enduring allusions to important, noble work. When we refer to employment for the greater good but perhaps perceived as not earth-shattering, we say “Well, it’s not curing cancer, but…” Curing a disease whose myriad forms takes the lives of too many in their prime, or before they had a chance to reach their prime, a disease that invariably strikes fear in hearts when it’s merely suspected, isn’t enough? It’s not enough to have your name (or your company’s name) right up there with Jonas Salk’s in the annals of history? It’s not enough for the world to praise your name for saving millions of lives?
Is it really true that the only incentive anyone cares about is cash?