Archive for September, 2011

Genes, patents and arts – copyrights on our DNA?

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

This blog post is a mix of a scientific controversy with an artistic vision. There has been growing concern with the idea of patenting or “copyrighting” genes from human genomes. The debate has been on and off after the sequence of the first draft of the human genome in 2001. Recently, it came back again after the company Myriad Genetics won a case in court for the patents of both breast cancer genes BRCA1 and 2. And what does arts has to do with genes and “copyrights”? The first artist to depict the structure of the DNA was Salvador Dali, who included DNA spirals in his surreal, phantasmagoric paintings in the 1950s. Dali was ahead of his time as most artists living in Europe, especially in Paris (for more information see the article “The art of DNA – Back to bases” in The Economist). It took the publication of Dr Watson’s book, “The Double Helix”, in 1968, the emergence of biotechnology and the manipulation of genetic material or “genes” in the 1970s, to edge the DNA molecule towards the centre of the public gaze. Since then, many artists have followed in Dali’s wake. Well, paintings, masterpieces, books, images and every creation and invention is patentable. But can we say that a piece of our own self, our DNA, the molecule of life is a creation or invention? Since it is already in our cells, the answer is no. The claim that lawyers are using is that as soon as the piece of the DNA corresponding to a gene is taken out of the cells and manipulated by molecular biology it could be considered a creation. Could this be? To understand this issue better we need to define how the word patent applies to genetics. A gene patent is a patent on a specific gene sequence, its usage, and often its chemical composition. The problem is that there is a big debate over whether these patents advance technology by providing scientists with an incentive to create, or hinder research by creating a lot of barriers and licensing fees to utilize research that is patented. In the case of both BRCA1 and 2, the company that holds the patents provides genetic testing for women that has familial history of breast cancer. This helps to identify the carriers of mutations and improve preventive medicine. However, the discussion is why just one specific company can hold the rights to a specific test? Should this be opened to other companies to reach more people with lower prices? The answer is yes I believe, but the law for gene patenting went to the other direction some years ago. The comparison with arts is that the creation and invention such as paintings or machines can be patented since they were designed from “nothing”. In the case of genes, even after being manipulated, they were already in our DNA inside our cells. In a NYTimes article by Andrew Pollack some time ago (“Ruling Upholds Gene Patent in Cancer Test”), the controversy is cautiously discussed and the decision on the patentability of genes and DNA was well accepted by most of the biotechnology industry. The point is that thousands of human genes have been patented, and some biotechnology executives say such patents are essential for encouraging innovation. Is that the case? In my opinion, genes are not a creation or invention even if they were manipulated by molecular biology. On the other hand, the genetic test used to detect the mutation or the defect in the gene is an innovation and can be patented. The controversy still continues since even though the court maintained the patents of both BRCA 1 and 2 to Myriad Genetics, court appeals will probably happen. For now, it looks like genes are still patentable. But we never know what the future holds for such cases…