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Who Owns Your Genes? Gene Patents and the Threat to Public Health

Posted Mar. 2, 2010 / Posted by: KTrout

Did you know that around 20 percent of the human genome has been patented? That corporations and researchers own hundreds of animal genes and thousands of plant genes? That even some DNA sequences of viruses like AIDS and SARS are patented, and a researcher could be violating the law if he or she uses them to create a new life-saving vaccine?

DNA sequences are facts of nature and common to all life on Earth. By allowing patents on genetic material, the federal government is leading us down a moral and environmental slippery slope, one that could end with the commodification of all life. Gene patents give corporations the sole rights to study the very genetic material that shapes our personality, our appearance and the diseases we are more prone to develop. In some cases, we already have to seek permission from and pay royalties to companies with patents on our genes in order to conduct research and get tests.

There are several legal and legislative challenges cropping up to stem the increasing corporate ownership of the building blocks of life. A recent lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging patents on two genes that correlate with increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad Genetics owns those naturally occurring DNA sequences as well as any natural mutations that may occur in them, some of which they have not even discovered yet! Because of Myriad’s patents, no one else is able to even look at those genes and patients are not able to get a second opinion on diagnostic tests. Myriad charges around $3,000 per test, an exorbitant amount that has nothing to do with the actual cost of genetic screening and everything to do with the company’s unfair monopoly on testing the genes. As a result, many women cannot afford the screenings.

In Congress, Friends of the Earth is taking the lead in support of the "Genomic Research and Accessibility Act," which is pending introduction. This bill, spearheaded by Congressman Xavier Beccera (D-CA), would ban the patenting of all naturally occurring genes and DNA sequences. We are organizing a broad coalition of environmental, public health, women's rights, agriculture, and religious groups to support this bill and fight for its passage.

The fight against gene patenting is about much more than wonky legal questions -- it is about social and environmental justice. Genes and other DNA sequences are facts of nature, common goods that we all share, and should be outside the realm of private ownership. Patents on DNA sequences decrease access to health care and suppress scientific innovation. Gene patents allow a handful of corporations and private special interests to manipulate the genetic code of life for their own profit, limiting public access to the breakthroughs, tests and treatments that research on our genes makes possible.

To learn more about gene patenting, visit our campaign web page.

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