Do You Own Your Own Genes?

November 3, 2010


By A. Gordon Smith, MD, Education Editor

The United States Department of Justice filed a legal brief on October 30, 2010, opposing the current practice of patenting genes. At present, whoever first sequences a gene can apply for a patent. The new brief argues that only genes that have been modified in some way should be patented.

This issue is the topic of ongoing litigation, and in March a federal district court invalidated patents for breast cancer genes. Up until now, the government had supported gene patenting.

Proponents of the current system argue that it's necessary for protection of intellectual property and business development. Those opposed point out that individual patients should have the right to sequence their own genes. The outcome of this litigation may have substantial impact on neuroscience research and patient care. For now, the patent office will continue to consider new patent applications.

As a clinician, clinical researcher (and patient!), the idea of patenting a gene seems to defy common sense. After all, genes were not newly synthesized by humans, they evolved without our direction. Could this practice hinder scientific development by allowing corporate interests to stifle competitors or academic investigation of genes for which they hold the patent?

What do you think; should genes be patented?

Where should the balance rest between patient rights, intellectual property rights and scientific development?