When the cost of discovery approaches zero…

Imagine if a judge allowed companies to patent oxygen, we’d all be paying that company to breathe. That’s the equivalent of what’s going on in the genetics world. Judges in the recent past have granted patents to companies who sequence genes in our DNA. The cost of “discovering” (definitely not inventing) a gene in the past few decades has been quite expensive. And the potential profit that stems from testing and manipulating that gene in humans could be quite lucrative.

But now that the cost of sequencing genomes is approaching something individuals can afford, the cost of discovery becomes almost free. But the companies who spent millions in the past few decades due to expensive technology (that’s now very affordable mind you) have spent millions patenting the equivalent of an element like carbon or oxygen. Nature “invented” it, these companies discovered it. And because they discovered it, they think they should profit from it. 

It is 100% wrong to patent genes. Patent tests, patent processes…but patenting genes is a mistake the courts made without having the insight to understand the implications of these decisions. It was systemic judgement failure that spread like a virus in the courts. 

Our genes should be 100% open source— nature invented and created them. What companies can do with those genes — testing and manipulating— should be patentable for a limited amount of time.

Back when I was seeing patients, I had a patient with a strong family history of breast cancer. She was uninsured. She wanted the genetic test to see if she was a carrier. I called the company who discovered the gene and, of course, offered the test (because that’s how they profit off their discovery). It was $4,000. I asked if they had any programs for the uninsured who couldn’t afford the cost. They said they did not and there was nothing they could do.


Jay Parkinson, MD blogs regularly at http://blog.jayparkinsonmd.com/