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Human genes belong to human beings

Posted Apr. 15, 2013 / Posted by: Erich Pica

Today, I stood with women’s health activists, BRCA-positive women and activists and organizations from across the country in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to express Friends of the Earth’s support and solidarity with Breast Cancer Action, the Association for Molecular Pathology, and the other plaintiffs in their arguments to invalidate the patents that Myriad Genetics holds on the Breast Cancer Susceptibility Genes 1 and 2 (collectively BRCA or BRCA1-2).

As we argued in our amici curiae brief, prepared by the International Center for Technology Assessment, we believe that these patents are illegal and the Supreme Court should rule to invalidate the BRCA 1-2 patents. The patents that Myriad Genetics hold are preventing important scientific research into breast cancer prevention and treatment by essentially creating a monopoly owned by Myriad Genetics. Scientists and researchers cannot research the BRCA 1-2 genes for fear of being sued by Myriad Genetics. This has a tremendous chilling effect on research on a disease that impacts approximately 290,000 women annually, accounting for 40,000 deaths.

Unfortunately, Myriad Genetics’ patents on BRCA1-2 are just two of the more 20 percent of the patents held on the human genome. This case is about much more than Myriad Genetics. This case is about whether companies, through the U.S. Patent office, can own life or the information needed to create life.

Friends of the Earth’s support for the invalidation of the Myriads Genetics is simple: you shouldn't be able to patent life or the building blocks of life.

Genetic material is the basis for all life, existing in nature since the beginning of the living world. The human genome is shared by all human beings, varying by only a fraction of a percent between people. This makes the human genome a common good and outside the realm of private property. These patents violate more than 150 years of patent law which dictates that you cannot patent naturally occurring things. What is more natural than DNA, the very building block of all life on the planet?

By commercializing genetic material, we have turned living beings into economic goods. Friends of the Earth is working to stop the patenting of all life forms, including our DNA, and to stop the commercialization and privatization of nature. For Friends of the Earth sister groups around the world, this is an important point. Currently, researchers, scientists and corporations are traveling the world seeking to understand the genetic code of indigenous peoples. These researchers are seeking traditional knowledge stored in the genetic code to make medical advances or to understand various diseases. They are also patenting and privatizing their discoveries, turning traditional genetic knowledge into a global commodity, essentially undertaking acts of biopiracy to create a monopoly and violating international law.

Finally, our knowledge of genetic information is still in its infancy. Theories about one for one genetic trait transmission and the theory of the uselessness of junk DNA is going through a radical rethink. The genetic code and the interactions between genetic materials are a vibrant ecosystem that we are just beginning to understand. Gene patents chill the ability of researchers to deepen our understanding of this genetic ecosystem and will ultimately be harmful to patients, scientists, researchers and the environment. By severely limiting scientific advances in the field of medicine and other areas, such as agriculture, we are limiting our ability to create a sustainable and just world where people and our environment are put before corporate profits.

I want to thank Breast Cancer Action, the Association for Molecular Pathology and the American Civil Liberties Union for challenging Myriad Genetics BRCA 1-2 gene patents, and believe that there is a preponderance of legal opinions for the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate these patents.

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