Singularity Hub has a fascinating interview with Dr. David Koepsell, a J.D./Ph.D. who specializes in writing about the intersection between ethics and emerging technology. Koepsell’s book, Who Owns You?, is currently being adapted into a documentary by filmmaker Taylor Roesch.
In short: Thanks to patents granted beginning in the early 20th century and a key 1980 Supreme Court case, Diamond v. Chakrabarty, both human genes and genetically modified organisms are patentable. According to the New York Times, roughly 20 percent of human genes have been patented, thanks to a blanket of more than 40,000 patents.
Human gene patenting works on the logic that if a patent applicant has “isolated and purified” genetic material, it constitutes an invention on their part – even if the strand is identical to the DNA sequence found in nature. Proponents of gene patenting (i.e. generally, the companies or their patent lawyers) argue that patent protection is essential to retaining strong investment in genetic research, which speeds up progress in the field. It’s true that patents are important to the biomedical industry’s ability to attract capital – Myriad stock took a nose dive after the Supreme Count shot down their BRCA patents. But the claim that a world without gene patents would stifle genetic research (or even make it unprofitable) seems overstated at best, and disingenuous at worst.
Here’s the trailer for Who Owns You?, which Roesch hopes to complete by the end of 2010:
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