Protecting Our Genome

Human Genome by Dollar Bin
Human Genome by Dollar Bin

Mapping the Human Genome was probably one of the greatest achievements of our time.

Scientists were able to unravel our DNA and gain an understanding of how its building blocks, chromosomes, specifically affected our lives.  For the first time we were able to find out if we were susceptible to various diseases, where our ancestors came from, what might happen to us physically as we aged.  Companies like 23 and me, and deCode have sprung up offering a comprehensive low cost service to analyze and help you understand your own DNA for around $USD 500.  This is an exciting development which is changing the lives of many people, and offering hope to others.

At the same time, multinational drug companies such as Myriad Genetics obtained their own genomic information for use with tests such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 which can determine a woman’s susceptibility to Breast Cancer and Ovarian Cancer.  The problem was they claimed exclusive ownership of the information, and legally threatened anyone else who tried to use this genomic information to do their own tests.  They charged women in the USA $3,700 for the test.

In other words, Myriad was saying “Information about this part of your genetic material belongs to our company, you’re not allowed to use it, but we’ll do the tests for you if you pay us a lot of money.  And if you try to do the testing yourself, we’ll sue you”.

Thankfully, a district court judge in the USA has ruled that Myriad’s patents are invalid.  The judge said that the company didn’t invent the genetic information – they just discovered it.  And you can’t patent something you discover, only something you invent.

The bigger issue in all of this is that the Human Genome belongs to all of us.  In computer jargon, it should be “Open Source”.  It’s abhorrent that a company can come along and try to hoodwink you into thinking that they own information about your genome.  Multinational drug companies try to tell us that unless they can own and exploit that information, they won’t develop life saving tests.

Rubbish!  These charlatans are building upon the freely available work of groups such as the Human Genome Project. They can’t then claim ownership of it, and bully anyone who disagrees with them.  If they don’t like the situation, too bad.  Some other organization will come along and quickly fill the gap.

This information belongs to the human race.  It’s inappropriate for it to be traded around like MP3’s or computer games.

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