Human Exceptionalism

Michael Chrichton on Gene Patenting

The best selling novelist Michael Chrichton’s most recent novel, Next, pokes hard at the business of biotechnology. He has also written this op/ed piece against gene patenting, a subject we have considered from time to time here at Secondhand Smoke. The following is part of what Chrichton writes:“You, or someone you love, may die because of a gene patent that should never have been granted in the first place. Sound far fetched? Unfortunately, it’s only too real.

“Gene patents are now used to halt research, prevent medical testing and keep vital information from you and your doctor. Gene patents slow the pace of medical advance on deadly diseases. And they raise costs exorbitantly: A test for breast cancer that could be done for $1,000 now costs $3,000.

Why? Because the holder of the gene patent can charge whatever he wants, and does. Couldn’t somebody make a cheaper test? Sure, but the patent holder blocks any competitor’s test. He owns the gene. Nobody else can test for it. In fact, you can’t even donate your own breast cancer gene to another scientist without permission. The gene may exist in your body, but it’s now private property…One fifth of your genes are privately owned.”

I don’t know if this is true. Royale, a frequent commentator here with whom I frequently disagree but who I hold in very high repute, has indicated (if I understand him correctly), that Chrichton might be misstating the case. I think this question gets to the crux of the issue.

Chrichton concludes with a call to support a bill to outlaw gene patenting that I referenced here a bit ago.“Fortunately, two congressmen want to make the full benefit of the decoded genome available to us all. This past Friday, Xavier Becerra, a Democrat of California, and Dave Weldon, a Republican of Florida, sponsored the Genomic Research and Accessibility Act, to ban the practice of patenting genes found in nature. Becerra has been careful to say the bill does not hamper invention, but rather promotes it. He’s right. This bill will fuel innovation, and return our common genetic heritage to us. It deserves our support.”

For me, supporting the latter affirmation will depend on the veracity of Chrichton’s earlier assertions. More here when I learn more.

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