Money in the Test Tubes
Nova Special 7: Who owns the genome This section introduces a troubling trend in the patent office. Namely, the fact that human genes are patentable. Now, Anyone who hears this would initially be incredulous. After all, these are naturally occurring chemical compounds which we all make and make use of. However, the U.S. Patent Office guy they talk to makes a decent case. He notes that the gene for insulin has been patented and, because of this, insulin is synthetically made to the benefit of diabetics everywhere. However, Eric Lander notes that some genes have been patented but not put to any discernible use. Indeed, their patent, or even potential patent, dissuades others from looking into their use for fear of the owner’s conditions.
Celera’s use of publicly available Genome Project information for their own corporate ends is similarly troubling. After all, Celera could research literally one gene themselves and, assuming that the Genome Project’s data is released as soon as it is gathered, make use of publicly available data and stay “one step ahead”, in some sense, and “finish first”. Clearly this is an extreme example, but that idea seems unfair, as does the fact that the relationship does not go both ways: the public project could not access Celera’s data.
In both these situations, we see a conflict between pure science and monied interests. This is nothing new. After all, research universities exist so there is money for scientist’s to fund their research, and it can always be difficult to practically justify pure science. However, as the gap narrows between “pure” science and practical medicine, those sciences will be seen as increasingly valuable. Although corporate money is in no way a bad thing (after all, DuPont’s labs have churned out a significant number of nifty new compounds), it expects a product, and it is getting involved quite early in the process (discovering and isolating the information which does something which could be used or altered to create a change). In a sense, it’s also unsettling to have for-profit organizations involved in the nuts and bolts of our existence. We are seeing a growing concern with corporate involvement in, and control of, all aspects of society in the current healthcare debate, and this could be seen as an extension of this debate (the goal is, after all, to create new drugs and cure disease).
Furthermore, if we advance genetic medicine to the point where we can, to some degree, “edit” our children, then capitalism again comes into play. It would not be unreasonable to believe that this service would have some cost and that some facilities and organizations may be better than others. Carrying this line of thought further, it is conceivable that the wealthy would be able to buy (in some sense) children which are objectively genetically superior to those of the poor. This could create a genetic caste system (like that in Brave New World, but not government-run). Of course, capitalism and the entrepreneurial spirit are characteristic of the “American” way of doing things, but so is the belief that birth does not determine ability, and genetic determinism is absolutely abhorrent. Clearly, all this is way down the line, and my assertions are not directly connected. However, the greater the spread of commercialization of science (effectively its removal from the academic sphere), the greater the potential harm. Today, patenting genes, tomorrow, saving up to buy the gene therapy to put your kid ahead.