Patents Gone Wild: Gene Modification Bill Reaches the Supreme Court

The trend of cancer research over the last several months has turned the tide toward using human genes and cells within the body to provide life-saving medical procedures. Without using medication, a patient’s own T-cells can save the individual’s life once they are extracted, combined with other substances, and then reinserted into the patient’s body. This is breakthrough medical research indeed, and one that will help cancer patients live longer and better. Using the body’s own cells and genetic tissue is a smart way to cure patients. It means that the effects of medicines becomes moot; no longer does a doctor need to worry about whether or not a medication will make his patient sick.

Unfortunately, anything that has life-saving properties always becomes a tool for the medical community to advertise and sell. The current case before the Supreme Court involves whether or not human genes can be patented. Medical companies are doing this, so they claim, to protect their research from patent infringement. With patents awarded on human genes, companies claim that the patents will allow their latest research (gene strategies) to give them recognition for their work. In other words, “the early bird in gene A will get the patent of gene A.” What makes the situation worse is that, unbeknownst to most Americans, medical companies have been receiving patents on human genes from the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for the last thirty years. Gene patenting has become a multi-million dollar industry.

While many would argue that the case is about economics (and it is, for the medical corporations involved), others are concerned that economics is a smokescreen for what is really at play: the debate is about personhood vs. inanimate objects. Think about a car: it is composed of parts that you can disconnect, pull apart, and divide. Cars are scrapped for parts whenever a car is declared to be “junk” and taken off to an abandoned car lot to be destroyed. At that time, mechanics often remove car parts that are valuable and can be used to repair other cars. If the medical companies win the case, then human beings will become nothing short of cars.

Those in agreement with gene patents have responded in the following manner: genes are part of the human body, but they become “synthetic chemical” when extracted, not DNA, according to Fox News. Former federal prosecutor Doug Burns says that the synthetic material, according to medical companies, could then be modified, reconstructed, or reconfigured in a manner that the medical companies desire. Unfortunately, this argument presumes that the gene is not a gene when extracted; even if a gene is extracted, it is still a gene. And if a gene belongs to an individual before its extraction, it is still that individual’s gene after it is extracted.

The courts have said that “genes are not inventions; genes are natural phenomena,” according to former federal prosecutor Doug Burns. This means that you cannot patent something that is not invented by humans. DNA is not a human invention, so it cannot be patented. The ACLU has made some comments about the possibility of gene patenting, and has said that, if you accept gene patenting, you must also accept that the kidney, when taken out of the body, deserves a patent as well. While medical companies are using this for all its economic power, they are stifling medical research and progress for those who need cancer medications and advanced treatments. Gene patenting will be a regress to progress.

The Supreme Court will render its final decision this summer.

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