Not long after the Supreme Court heard the gay marriage cases that captured the enthusiasm of the nation, another case, equally as contentious, was heard. Myriad Genetics and the ACLU are arguing about whether or not genes can be patented. Such a question speaks to the commoditization of medical science and American society as a whole.
Myriad Genetics holds patents on two different genes, which give women higher rates of breast or ovarian cancer. The possession of these patents allows Myriad Genetics to have all claims over testing for these genes, which can be quite profitable. Though the patent for the genes expire in two years, the case before the Supreme Court is more about establishing precedent: should a corporation be able to hold the property right to a part of the human body?
The time since Dr. Jonas Salk said of his polio vaccine, “could you patent the sun?” is long past. Companies and individuals now are copyrighting everything under the sun, from “Occupy Wall Street” to words like “Yup” and “Super Bowl”. In such a context, the idea of a company patenting your DNA seems less ludicrous than perhaps it should be seen.
The ultimate deciding factor here comes down to a distinction between money and the ability to utilize the research developed by Myriad Genetics freely: it’s a complicated decision. While many see the incentives provided by patents as vital to further innovation (as humans, scientists or not, are primarily motivated by self-interest) one also questions the dominance the pharmaceutical and medical industries have over life saving, world changing ideas and programs. When a patent is in effect, these technologies, however vital, are being restricted in their distribution, and might keep others from continuing to improve on care. As Christopher Hansen of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the case, contends, “A patent isn’t a reward for effort. A patent is a reward for invention. And Myriad didn’t invent anything. The gene exists in the body. All Myriad did is find it.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling on this case will not only set a precedent for further conversations about copyrights, patents, and the human body, but also will change the way the world (or rather, the business) of medicine operates. Whether the point of patents are to preserve innovation or profit, the major changes that will occur from whom can own a gene will be critical, and reveals much about our new commoditized world.