Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Shokai's First Blogging Rule of Thumb: when in doubt about what else to write about, make fun of Michael Crichton.

As attentive readers will recall, Mr. Crichton has recently published a book and written a Times op-ed piece about genetic patenting. He claims that due to a "bizarre situation" and "a mistake by an underfinanced and understaffed government agency," scientists are now taking out patents on genes, and can in fact "own" the patents on the very genes in your body. He maintains that genetic testing is being hampered because some genes are patented and royalties must be paid to the greedy patent holders, and that these evil scientists can even continue to perform research on your tissue samples without your knowledge or consent.

Well, he may have made a mistake running his mouth in the Times, because its readers have responded with a series of letters in last Monday's paper. As it turns out, patents on genes cover only scientifically isolated genes, not genes as found in living organisms. And patents are irrelevant to the question of who owns tissue samples. A reader from Ann Arbor suggested we consider the alternative: if an individual has a "miracle" component in their genetic makeup, say a gene that could cure AIDS, should permission from these people be required before their tissue can be studied? They didn't "invent" their genes any more than the researchers "invented" the genes they're patenting. Would Mr. Crichton argue that they should be allowed to withhold such information from society?

A patent attorney from San Francisco noted that the patent office has been issuing gene patents for more than three decades without intervention of the Supreme Court or Congress. It's astounding, he wrote, that that could happen for so long if gene patents were merely based on some bureaucratic "mistake." A research professor at George Washington University Law School noted that way back in 1911, Judge Learned Hand established that patents could be issued on the isolated and purified versions of substances occurring naturally in our body. Judge Hand's reasoning has been applied to sustain patents on artificially isolated and purified genes, which is all that may be patented.

Like other patents, those on genes are vital to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Why would anyone risk the billions needed to transform basic science into lifesaving products if someone else could simply copy these products without risk? Gene patents temporarily increase prices to provide greater incentives for discovery. Although Mr. Crichton argues that people may die because greedy patent holders are stiffling research, the Professor notes it is no less true and no less hyperbolic to speculate that you, or someone you love, could die if genes became unpatentable, because without the financial security of a patent, the necessary genetic research would not be done in time.

"I doubt," concluded the patent attorney, "that Michael Crichton would let others copy and sell his novels and movies for no cost." Of course not. It seems that Mr. Crichton just wants others to turn over the results of their hard work at no expense to him.

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