The double helix of the deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA for short, is what separates a human from a chimpanzee, or from a garden worm. You would think that the DNA of a human being was that person’s own property – but according to patent law, it is not necessarily so.

double_helix_smThe company Myriad Genetics in the United States have long-held the patent for two genes – BRCA1 and BRCA2 – and this has allowed the corporation to dictate the research around these two genes, which are strongly associated with breast cancer.

Anyone that conducts an experiment on these two genes can be sued for patent violation. So, if some lab sits on a cure for breast cancer, this corporation can destroy that cure if it so wishes, and if it deems it suitable to protect its own patents.

A woman who is born with either of those genes are five times more likely to develop breast cancer, but this corporation dictates if there are any tests or treatments targeting those two genes. The only way is to pay for a test from Myriad, which costs one thousand US dollars. Nobody else can create a test, and certainly not any generic test, like we see in such cases as Glivec where the Indian supreme court recently struck down an attempt to keep that substance under patent after its patent had run out.

The article in the New Yorker that made me think about this doesn’t ask the question, and the question is only inferred – but it is a necessary question to ask, because it goes to the heart of patenting genes.

Who owns you?