The case against patenting Human Gens

Posted: July 15, 2013 by jennroig in Commentary, English
Tags: , , , , , , ,

9885147_origI just finished reading this Joseph Stiglitz’s post in The New York Times. It’s about intellectual property, and how a Court’s decision can affect our right to a better quality of life. If you’re a woman, simply life.

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize in Economics, 2001

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize in Economics, 2001

Stiglitz’s point: Intellectual Property Reinforces Inequality. I agree.

But he’s not specifically referring to pirating TV shows, or movies. He’s not arguing about the music industry, or P2P sharing. He’s not talking about sharing information and knowledge, whether or not it should be a universal human right and not a for-profit enterprise, and whether Aaron Swartz is a hero or a thief for hacking into MIT and getting lots of academic papers from Jstor database. I guess I imagine  where would Stiglitz stand in all those regards, but I can’t tell for sure. He’s referring now to the fact that a company named Myriad Genetics has no longer the exclusive ownership of the patent for Human Gens BRCA1 and BRCA2. In other words: Human gens cannot be patented.


Angelina Jolie

Why do I care about it? Basically, because we should all care about these stuff. In layman’s terms, Gens BRCA1 and BRCA2 are related to the potential danger for women to ger breast cancer. Remember Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy that made the news a while ago? She had the mutations of these gens that could pose the risk of breast cancer. But I admit I have some skin in the game. My godmother died of cancer, she had breast cancer first, got a mastectomy in times previous to any implants, and survived some years to raise a child and then get a lethal metastasis.

This specific memory, this particular event from my past defined my stance regarding a couple of things: I hate cigarettes and tobacco companies, and I condemn, and can’t understand, why is any medication against cancer or test to prevent it, available free for everyone who might need it, in an affordable way.

According Stiglitz, “The company had successfully obtained patents for the genes. ‘Owning’ the genes gave it the right to prevent others from testing for them. (…) But the patents had devastating real-world implications, because they kept the prices for the diagnostics artificially high. Gene tests can actually be administered at low cost — a person can in fact have all 20,000 of her genes sequenced for about $1,000, to say nothing of much cheaper tests for a variety of specific pathologies. Myriad, however, charged about $4,000 for comprehensive testing on just two genes. Scientists have argued that there was nothing inherently special or superior about Myriad’s methods — it simply tested for genes that the company claimed to own, and did so by relying on data that was not available to others because of the patents”.

Stiglitz keeps going explaining how patents do more harm than good, and makes the case that historically, better health associates to better economic outcomes.

This reading has made me think. Why isn’t the media covering this issue, and other issues of this nature, more widely and deeply? And why is there so much fuzz around Snowden, discussing whether is he a whistleblower of a traitor? He only said what we already knew, we are being watched. Tragic? Maybe, but so far I haven’t heard about casualties, or maybe there might be a few casualties, out of the NSA listening to our phone calls,  skype conversations, reading our emails and checking our Facebook status.

From my perspective, a way bigger crime is trying to patent Human Gens which mutations can pose a risk of a mortal disease.

The media is also covering Trayvon Martin’s case. But the angle of the gun ownership hasn’t been sufficiently covered by any media, though I applaud this Huffington Post piece. And I guess no one could deny that without the arm, the history wouldn’t necessarily have ended in tragedy.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist and I don’t want to be one. But sometimes it really seems like there are forces in play drawing our attention to the wrong direction, distracting us from looking at where we should be focusing.

Stiglitz final parragraph scares me: “Economic power often speaks louder, though, than moral values; and in the many instances in which American corporate interests prevail in intellectual property rights, our policies help increase inequality abroad. In most countries, it’s much the same as in the United States: the lives of the poor are sacrificed at the altar of corporate profits. But even in those where, say, the government would provide a test like Myriad’s at affordable prices for all, there is a cost: when a government pays monopoly prices for a medical test, it takes money away that could be spent for other lifesaving health expenditures.”


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