By Chris Barts
Week before last, this section printed a column on the progress the Human Genome Project has made in sequencing the human genome, all 46 chromosomes. That column was directed at some of the problems inherent in such knowledge, and how knowledge and an application of good legal and moral sense would solve those problems. This week's column will focus more specifically on one of those problems, the problem of certain companies wishing to patent the sequencing information they invested so much time and effort in discovering. Such patents would be legally and morally untenable.
One reason the patents should not be granted is that the corporations didn't create anything, but simply discovered something that is in all humans. The information in the genes they sequenced is not of their invention. Patents protect, in the words of the United States Patent Office, things that are "new, useful and non-obvious." This is typically aesthetic designs, functional items, functional methods, or asexually reproduced plants. DNA sequencing information, under those definitions, is not fit to patent, regardless of the investment various groups have made, and are making even now, in the field of gene sequencing.
Furthermore, such a patent would be legally without defense. Every day a human being is alive his cells use his genetic material in various ways, from protein production to mitosis, all the time creating copies of his entire genetic structure in most of his living cells. This means that of the trillion cells estimated to be in the average human body, most of them contain exact, or very nearly so, copies of the very information a corporation would try to patent. Any group of people, corporate or not, could, with sufficient motivation, tools, and money, "harvest" a few of those cells, a procedure as simple as drawing blood or collecting skin cells, getting thousands of copies of the supposedly "patented" information, and decode the sequencing, getting whatever information a patent holder would try to protect. Patents cannot be defended under such conditions.
But perhaps the most important reason DNA sequencing information should not be patented is because it is in an inherent part of everyone. Nobody has the right to assert ownership over what we all share in common. For all of the physical and mental differences each person has, most of the human genome is very similar from person to person. This fact makes it important to discover how the human genetic material is arranged, and to put that knowledge in the public domain. That way medicines, the valid creations of a specific person or group of people, can be based on the human genome and used to better the world, while making a profit for those who invented them.
And bettering the world is what science is all about. Profit is a means to an end, and never lasts as long as knowledge does, nor helps as many people.