Private Firms See ‘Gold Rush’ in Gene Patents, ’60 Minutes’ Reports
With private companies "rush[ing]" to patent human genes CBS' "60 Minutes" reports that firms may already own most of the human genome. "60 Minutes" chronicles the case of Steve Crohn, a gay man regularly exposed to HIV who thought that he might have an immunity to the virus. Crohn allowed researchers at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York to study him, and scientists found that he had natural resistance to HIV, which resulted from a genetic mutation that produced AIDS-resistant cells -- a "promising discovery" for AIDS research. While ADARC filed for a patent on the gene, the company listed neither Crohn nor Eric Fuchs, who had a similar genetic mutation, as co-owners of their own genetic material. In a letter to "60 Minutes," ADARC "claim[ed]" that the gene patent has not resulted in any financial gain for the not-for-profit organization, adding that Fuchs and Crohn did not "contribute intellectually" to the discovery of the gene mutation and "cannot be considered as co-owners." Fuchs, however, remains "not satisfied" by the Diamond Center's explanation. "It was my idea that I was immune, it wasn't their idea," he said.
Joining the 'Gold Rush'
While technology "takes us into a brave new world, the old world's laws are racing to catch up," "60 Minutes" reports, adding that the Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that a company could patent a "life form" that was a genetically altered bacterium used in oil spills. The decision led to a "gold rush," with firms using the ruling as a "license" to patent human genes. "Doctors are searching the globe, looking at patients as potential treasure troves," Lori Andrews, an attorney who advises Congress on biotechnology issues, said, adding, "Because they can use your blood to find a very lucrative gene." She added that patents "were never intended for products of nature," such as genes, which she called "hardly inventions." She concluded, "I think that greed has become a cultural value in health care." However, some argue that "patent protection drives discovery." According to Todd Dickenson, a former head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, "The incentive to do even the threshold research would not be there if the patent system wasn't in place to provide the kind of protection and the nurturing that new inventions need" (CBS, "60 Minutes," 2/25).