It is, in my mind, a very important thing that is going on in the Supreme Court of the United States at the moment. American Civil Liberties Union is arguing a case there that human genes can not be patented, and an American company is arguing that unless you can patent human genes, biomedical research will die on the vine.
Let us consider that patents are valid world-wide, just to illustrate the principle going on in the case. If a doctor in Berlin, Germany is treating a woman and finds that she has breast cancer, the doctor can not isolate the woman’s DNA and look for the genetic clues of her disease, because doing so would be an infringement on the patents that the company Myriad Inc. holds.
If the doctor wants to treat the woman, he has to use remedies and therapies developed by Myriad, or remedies and therapies that have been officially and legally licensed from Myriad. This because, according to patent laws, Myriad owns the genes associated with the type of breast cancer that the German woman has.
The genes that Myriad owns are called BRCA1 and BRCA2, and they own the genes because the company identified the existing genes first, and showed that mutations of these genes were crucial in developing breast cancer and other types of cancers. They key is that no work can be done on BRCA1 and BRCA2 because the company owns the genes, and not the remedies that target those genes.
Human beings can not be owned, that is called slavery, and there is no distinction between owning a whole body and owning the bio-matter of the body. I hope ACLU wins this one, even if it would mean that everyone stopped doing research. Some principles are more important than money.