Greed and the Business of Genes
Let’s talk about money.
Well, before that, let’s talk about a hypothetical situation.
Imagine this: The country is on the edge of a discovery that has a high probability of changing the economic infrastructure of an entire market. It’s a virgin frontier of business with evidence of gold beneath the ground, and you’ve been given the chance to stake a claim in these wild lands for a shot of these riches. Here’s the problem: You’re not exactly prepared to explore this territory yet, but there are others, rivals, who are. Would you still file for government acknowledgement in order to grab a piece of land before they’re all bought up? Or would you hold onto the stake, hoping that one day the investment will be returned a hundred, maybe even a thousand-fold?
This is the mindset that went behind patenting pieces of DNA. At the time of the patent rush, DNA research and discovery were considered to be sitting on a gold mine in the patent world: it was new information that could lead to great discoveries, which could change the way modern medicine would have worked. From a business perspective, it was a low-risk, high-reward situation, which is why during the race for the human genome the patent office suddenly became flooded with requests.
The problem? There were so many requests that they couldn’t all be examined, and instead were shelved away for an indeterminate amount of time until they could be properly looked at. With a patent suspended, and thus, no real definition of ownership, research, testing, and development on any of these genes were caught in the bureaucratic system, questioning fees and arguing rights. Should businesses and organizations be forced to give up their patents in progress for the science?
It would have helped research on these genes move along faster. And who knows, maybe that gene was the one for cystic fibrosis or breast cancer. Maybe the gene, and an understanding of its domino effect in the body, would have given scientists a clue for developing a more effective treatment, maybe even a cure.
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered at all, like in the case for cystic fibrosis: the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene, was first discovered in 1988. It’s 2012 now, and so far there’s still been little progress on the prevention of or cure for the disease. Twenty-four years since the identification of one gene on chromosome 7, and there’s little to show for it. So maybe whoever patented the gene would have had the right to retain their patent.
But, let’s be fair: that’s thinking retrospectively.
Would it have been greedy to have held onto the patent for CFTR at the time of discussion? Or would it have simply been a business securing its property and rights? After all, there was a lot of hype and expectation surrounding the discovery of the CFTR gene. Everyone affected by cystic fibrosis (and that doesn’t just include victims of the disease) hoped fervently that the solution to their chronic condition was just around the corner. But research would have been stopped, if the patent was suspended.
Is this an example of human greed? Or is it simply the nature of the business of genes? Should businesses have the right to patent a piece of DNA that’s already within all of us, especially at the cost of delaying research, which could help those particularly affected by that piece?
In the enormous frontier that the genome project opened, can businesses be blamed for wanting to claim a potential gold mine?
If given the chance, would you have done it?