Who owns you?

Currently in NewScientist, Katrina Voss argues that there is little intrinsic worth in a decoded genome, and that, should you get yours decoded, you should make it publicly available.

She mentions the potential for insurance companies to use this information when screening you, but says little about it. Most of the article relates to privacy issues, which I don’t see as the big problem, really. I think she’s unaware of or ignoring the big issue involved.

What I see as the problem is the fact that genes and gene sequences can be and have been patented. Usually, the patent is granted to the researchers who do the identification of the gene, and assigned to their employer, who may in turn license or sell it to others. The person or persons who provided the gene usually get nothing. Often, they don’t even know that portions of their genome have been patented.

There are several controversial issues involved in gene patents. The first is the question of whether it’s appropriate to even allow patents on them, since they occur in nature. The argument made in favor is that the gene may occur naturally, but the patent is granted for identifying its purpose and how to produce and use it. To me, an analogous situation would be allowing a patent on diamonds or sapphires, since they can be produced artificially and have identifiable uses.

Another issue is whether gene patents promote or inhibit advancements in the field. This is effectively the same argument that’s been going on over open-source software, so I won’t say much about it. Personally, I think the overall effect is inhibition, but it is an area where I doubt there’ll ever be full agreement. Overall, this issue is a matter of philosophy and beliefs.

There is at least one lawsuit currently in progress related to the use of gene patents.

Posting your genome to a publicly-available site may or may not be able to preclude the patenting of your genetic information (remember, the argument is that the patent is for identifying the purpose of the gene). If enough people post theirs, it may help to direct research efforts – the more common a gene sequence is, the more likely it is that a test or treatment based on it will be commercially viable – but it’s unlikely to solve any issues related to already-patented sequences.

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