You own what part of me?

We all remember being kids, playing and mingling with others our age on the school playground, and having a bigger kid stake out some bit of prime real estate on the blacktop, claiming it as his special spot in the universe, unusable by all others (at least until the bell rang).

Even as children, we understood experiences like this to be immensely unfair. The playground is, after all, common property intended to benefit everyone. (Of course, I admit to feeling prideful when I was finally old enough, or big enough, or with the “right” crowd that I was one who shared the prime turf, but it was no more justified when I was reaping the benefits of the arrangement).

So, it is with the same spirit that every child can understand that common resources should not belong to a select few that I am pleased by the ruling of the U.S. District court on Monday. The ruling by Judge Robert Sweet invalidated patents on human genes.

DNA illustrationIn the case in question, Myriad Genetics Inc. filed for and received patents on two human genes that have been linked to an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. By “owning” this section of our genetic code, Myriad wants to be the only company in the U.S. that can look for these genes, and thus be the only place a woman could go to test for the presence of these genes if she or her doctor were concerned. In essence, Myriad owned part of your body that you could not touch—you want to look you had to pay them.

As research advances into new frontiers, and as we learn more about genes and their control over our lives, the potentials for new breath-taking and life-saving advances are huge. We can imagine a day when a medical practitioner can sample your genetic code and work with you on a personalized health care regime for life, designed to address the issues that you are likely to face, working on preventative life-style choices for example. Or, when disease does strike being able to use designer drugs created for you personally based upon your genetic makeup, not throwing at you a host of drugs that work on “average” people, but one that will work for you.

The Human Genome Project (HGP) laid out the entire code of human DNA, and set the groundwork for such advances in medical and other research. The HGP was undertaken in the best spirit of science, to expand our knowledge for the potential benefit of all. Having private companies being able to stake off claims to sections of our DNA for exclusive use is the antithesis of that spirit.

Few things could be claimed to be more common property to all of humanity than the very genes that make us human. The ruling will almost certainly be appealed and I sincerely hope it is upheld. Free the genes!

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