No One Should Hold a Patent on Humans

By Nesbit, Jeff | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 27, 1996 | Go to article overview

No One Should Hold a Patent on Humans


Nesbit, Jeff, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


So how much, exactly, is the blueprint of your life worth?

It has been several years since worldwide controversy first erupted over efforts to patent and commercialize human DNA sequences or segments of human genes.

But the controversy - which began over whether it was proper to try to patent human DNA without some sort of commercial process to go along with it - has evolved more recently into a dispute over the moral implications of the concept altogether.

As more companies discover the economic value of human DNA from remote populations, for instance, the calls to regulate the process more closely are growing louder by the moment.

How lucrative is it to mine for human DNA as if it were nothing more than a raw material out there to be harvested and used commercially?

Well, blood samples taken from asthmatics living on a remote South Atlantic island, Tristan da Cunha, turned into asthma treatment technologies that were eventually sold to German pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim for $70 million. Other get-rich-off-DNA stories also abound from research discoveries in remote parts of the world.

Even the prospect of products from "ordinary" gene sequences is lucrative. Major U.S. pharmaceutical companies have signed contracts with small genome companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the rights to market products resulting from their research efforts.

Microsoft chief Bill Gates and another partner invested $10 million in just one company, Darwin Molecular Technologies, in the hope that the company can strike human DNA gold.

In all, U.S. and Japanese companies currently own nearly 1,000 patents worldwide for human DNA sequences, which may ultimately be worth billions in the marketplace.

Yet while the road map to commercial success for those laying claim to human gene sequences may seem within reach today, it has not been an easy development process.

Several years ago, a National Institutes of Health researcher, Dr. J. Craig Venter, triggered worldwide protests when he filed for American patents on thousands of gene sequences from the human brain.

At the time, Dr. Venter was part of the international effort to decode all human genes - the Human Genome Project - and NIH's decision to apply for patents on sequences was criticized on several fronts.

Unlike all other patents on human genes (which involved a specific product or process), the NIH patents were for the gene sequences only.

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