The Worst Thing Ever Could Happen on April 15

I’m not usually one to monologue about my political views. I’m kind of like Switzerland. Easy breezy. Usually neutral. I like guns.  Mostly, my opinions and political stances just aren’t that entertaining. But I think something very disastrous is about to happen.

On April 15, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether or not your genes can be patented.

Most of you will stop reading there. Yes, I also thought this was supposed to be some kind of travel blog about my misadventures 180 degrees around the world. But there is some serious shit about to go down in DC.

Gene Patent Myriad

Flickr/Andres Rueda

Do you want to die of cancer? No? Me neither. Did you ever think you’d die of polio? No? Me neither. Hell, I didn’t even know what polio really meant until recently.

But that’s the thing: I was blessed to be ignorant about it. I thank the guy who invented the polio vaccine some 65 years ago.

That guy, Jonas Salk, was interviewed on a late night talk show after he gained notoriety for his discovery.

“Who owns the patent for it?” the host asked.

“Ain’t nobody got time for that,” Salk replied. Just kidding. He said, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Years ago, a biotech firm out of Utah, Myriad Genetics, isolated the gene that mutates into breast cancer.  The term “isolated” is the problem here. Myriad thinks that because they took the DNA out of its natural environment (say, the gene sequence in a breast cancer patient’s body) and played around with it (they’re the first to do so), they should own it.

The nice folks at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), or the plaintiffs who have been appealing this case for years, say no dice. “Isolated” genes are no different than those that exist naturally. The gene sequence has the same chemical composition, it’s just out of its human environment. Kind of like me in a room full of people who love cats and wasabi.

Nobody likes you, cat.

Nobody likes you, cat.

So why should one pharmaceutical company own a gene, preventing others from experimenting with it (or just forcing them to pay a buttload to use it for research)?

Patents are awarded for human invention, to encourage innovation. You could say there might’ve been some “invention” going on when Myriad extracted and manipulated the gene. Probably similar to how I’ll sometimes dig a piece of chicken or steak out of my Chipotle burrito, dip it into one or a combination of all three of the sauces Chipotle so kindly offers and eat it separately from the burrito itself. But is my chicken or steak concoction inherently different than the chicken or steak they’re serving to everyone else behind the glass you’re not allowed to lean on? Not really. Bad example.

Setting this precedent – that you can own scientific knowledge of the cancer-cure-research variety – could be really bad. Myriad would get the rights to all testing and research on the gene. Anyone who does testing on the gene could be sued for infringing on their patent. Any discoveries that stem from research on that mutated gene also belong to Myriad.  The entire human genome could end up patented.

Patents then would be counter-productive. No one would get into the now-hairy business of cancer research for fear of patent infringement.

Redwoods

I found this leaf. It occurs naturally. I just removed it from its environment. Can I patent it?

Now, I’ve read about the benefits to supporting medical patents. Patents help progress. Patents encourage medical innovation. They create incentives for researchers and pharmaceutical companies to operate. And that all makes sense.

But I’ve also read a lot about polio, the polio vaccine and its creator since I first heard about this case (in February, when Australia’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Myriad).

Half a century ago, Polio was the plague. It killed a third of the kids it reached; crippling, disabling, paralyzing others. People – parents – were terrified of it, keeping their kids home from school, “quarantining” them, etc. So the US population and the government rallied behind finding a cure.

“As the fear of polio increased each year, funds to combat it increased from $1.8 million [in 1952] to $67 million by 1955,” states a credible source. “More Americans had participated in the funding, development, and testing of the polio vaccine than had participated in the nomination and election of the president.”

When Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine and demonstrated that it worked, the US set up a fund to provide widespread immunizations to women and children. The rush to fund, and then the rush to vaccinate, eradicated the disease almost worldwide. And today, I don’t have that indented mark on my left shoulder.

After Salk discovered the vaccine, he had went to work on a cure for cancer. Unfortunately, that challenge still exists today.

Maybe I’m not in DC picketing as I should be. I’m just awareness-raising, I suppose, and nostalgic for a period I didn’t live through: when a president and a country heavily invested in finding a cure for a debilitating disease, and pooled so many resources into it. Let’s not limit those resources, guys: read more about genomic liberty.

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