Mutations of Ownership: Should Genes Be Patentable?

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” -Thomas Jefferson

The Angelina Jolie Effect

In 2013, Angelina Jolie shocked Hollywood by announcing her decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy. She cited a hereditary risk of breast and ovarian cancer and what she had been told was a 65 percent chance of breast cancer due to a mutation in her BRCA1 gene.

The discovery that certain mutations of the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes increase risk of breast and ovarian cancer was made in the 1990s. The company that began the BRCA analysis test claimed that a mutation in either of these genes could increase risk to as high as 87 percent for developing breast cancer and 63 percent for developing ovarian cancer by age 70.

The ensuing publicity caused a surge in genetic testing in what has been named the Angelina Jolie effect’. But the cost of a BRCA test is extremely prohibitive, at more than $3,000 in the United States. Jolie wrote in an op-ed that this was a huge obstacle for many women seeking tests for breast cancer, a disease that kills almost half a million people around the world each year.

When Myriad Genetics discovered the ‘breast cancer genes’ in 1994 and 1995, it managed to acquire 20-year patents for the very genes themselves, as well as any current and future methodologies for examining them. This monopolization was a boon for shareholders, and in 2013 the BRCA analysis test brought in 75 percent of Myriad’s total revenue of $613 million.

Should Biological Phenomena be Ownable?

Conversations about property rights typically involve things that people have built, bought, or otherwise created throughout their lives. But as technology challenges our fundamental understanding of biology and ourselves, we are faced with a decision about whether to update our institutions to reflect new opportunities for ownership in nature.

In 2009, a group of organizations including the Association for Molecular Pathology and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the BRCA gene patents, arguing that they amounted to patenting human life, robbed every person of a piece of self-determination, and violated basic human dignity.

The case was supported by testimony from many women who had been disadvantaged or put at risk by patent restrictions, from being denied a second opinion on tests, to being unable to afford testing, and having insurance rejected by Myriad. After a four-year legal battle, the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that human genes cannot be patented in the U.S. because DNA is a “product of nature”.

This ruling annulled the patents related to more than 4300 human genes, stripping monopoly status from Myriad Genetics and dozens of other companies and institutions that had profited from them. “Myriad did not create anything,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion. “To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention.”

What the landmark ruling didn’t cover, however, were methods for testing BRCA genes, possible new patents of these methods, or the patentability of synthesized DNA. Myriad’s two-decade monopoly has left it with a massive database of genetic data, maintaining its dominant position in risk factor analysis for BRCA genes compared to any competitor.

The main importance of the Court’s decision was establishing this boundary between innovation and appropriation of biological phenomena. In the same way that natural resource extraction methods can be patented and monopolized, so too can techniques for analyzing and repurposing genetic material. But the mere existence of compounds in nature should not be ownable in a free and clear way, not without some sort of duty to use these natural opportunities, opportunities that hold the potential to free us of a great deal of suffering and unleash human potential.


It’s not just genes that have been captured for exclusive license and rent-seeking. Consider Joseph Merrick, a so-called ‘freak of nature’ known as the Elephant Man. He spent most of his short life in circuses, where many entrepreneurs made a great deal of money exploiting Merrick’s condition. Until recently his bones were on display at the Royal London Hospital museum, and there is no evidence to suggest he consented to this.

The most famous case of this sort of appropriation is that of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose cancer cells were harvested in 1951 and used to create an immortal cell line for scientific experimentation. In the process of radium and x-ray therapy, tissue was removed from her tumor and secretly sent to a lab at Hopkins University to be grown in test tubes.

Lacks died at the age of 31, leaving behind a husband and five young children. The family never received any financial support, and found out by chance that their mother’s cells (called HeLa cells) have been used in ongoing research. HeLa cells were used in developing the polio vaccine, were sent into space, and have been used for cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.

The practice of patenting materials in nature and people or aspects of cultural tradition is given the derogatory term ‘biopiracy’, and agrochemical and biotech company Monsanto offers an illustration which once again distinguishes between innovation and merely appropriating what freely exists in nature.  In 2016, the European Patent Office revoked a Monsanto patent for a virus-resistant gene found in Indian melons. Monsanto introduced the resistance to other types of melons and managed to patent this as its own invention. But the gene responsible for this resistance was discovered in 1961 and plants containing it have been publicly available since 1966. Conversely, Monsanto has won many of its own lawsuits against farmers who infringe on patent rights Monsanto has on its seeds.

Monsanto and other institutions have appropriated these materials without obtaining consent. It then has turned around and charged monopoly prices to the same people for the right to use these materials. And while cultural remuneration is tricky, privatizing these cultural products anyway has sometimes resulted in important advances in medicine and other fields. However, in the context of patents, there has more often been a very real reduction in scientific and social advancement, as patent holders merely speculate on their patent claims. This forces real innovators to pay large sums of economic rent or go through contortions to avoid patents, all in order to add to the intellectual stock of humanity.

For example, there are hundreds of patents on Agrobacterium techniques alone, which has been the most common vector for companies like Monsanto splicing genetic code into plants. The reason there are so many is the risk of patent infringement. Researchers have come up with brilliant workarounds for these problems, but developing new ways to do the same things has huge opportunity costs. For scientists, it’s a purely bureaucratic hurdle, not a chance for real scientific advancement. Thankfully, tools are being developed to help reduce confusion over this, but they are not enough to encourage entrepreneurship without an army of lawyers.

Open Access

In the mid-’80s, molecular biologist Dr. Richard Jefferson pioneered a genetic research technique that helped illuminate where genes are expressed in plant tissue. He distributed this helpful technique immediately to more than 1000 labs around the world.

Jefferson said in an interview that the litigious way in which genetic patent issues tend to be resolved is not constructive, and that both parties “end up trying to promote their particular worldview based on a lack of evidence on either side”.

“So you’ll have businesses who will pound their wingtips on the table and say ‘we must have exclusive licenses, and… on the other side, you might have civil society or thoughtful social policy engagement that says ‘it’s all wrong, you shouldn’t do it that way, everything should be free’, but they may well not be aware of the very complex natures of risk mitigation businesses have to encounter,” he said.

“There’s no real evidence base that can guide real problem-solving for policymakers or for practitioners.”

One company might be better off if techniques for analyzing genes can be monopolized, but it is likely that the market for innovation and society as a whole would be better off if these medical techniques were somehow available to all. These returns to society could manifest as wealth creation, scientific innovation, and better health outcomes.

Open source success stories in the technology world –  including operating systems, programming languages and web browsers – have not offered direct profit to its community of creators, but they have provided social value and a means to create wealth. Jefferson wrote in 2006: “Many ask, ‘How do you make money in open source?’ The answer: you make money not by selling open source, but by using open source.”

There are valid reasons both for patents as well as open source. However, might there be a synthesis, a solution that would give us the best of both worlds?

Incentives are Holier than Property

Friends of, Guido Núñez-Mujica and Joseph Jackson, had a great idea for helping poor people in remote areas of Latin America. They wanted to create a light and portable machine for copying DNA (PCR) so it could be used for all sorts of things, in this case testing for tropical diseases. A standard PCR machine is fairly heavy, at least as far as jungle treks go, so a light mobile version could have really helped a lot of people get tested and then obtain treatment. However, because someone had patented the mere idea more than 25 years ago, and done nothing with it, they could not patent it themselves. This vastly reduced the pool of investors due to the increased threat of competition.

Even if others have independently thought of the same idea on their own, they are restricted from using it by an existing patent. Such ideas should not belong exclusively to the person who merely filed the patent first, at least not in an absolute way. We can, for instance, say that a patent affords the holder the opportunity to invest more into creating their idea, but that right should be coupled with an incentive to use their monopoly privilege for productive purposes.

An innovative solution to this problem parallels that of 19th-century economist Henry George, who wanted to incentivize landlords owning prime real estate to make their land available to others. He proposed a tax on the value of urban land to invigorate landlords to use prime locations productively.

Where landlords have monopoly privilege over a particular geographic location, Myriad genetics and Monsanto had, and to some degree still have, a monopoly privilege over specific ‘nucleo-graphic’ areas of DNA, untouched by the artifice of human innovation. Just like landlords who own vacant urban lots for years and leave them undeveloped, patent owners should pay increasingly more to exclude others from developing ideas that will benefit humanity.

Photo: Pixabay.

Patent Value Tax

Patents are important because the exclusive usage rights can often provide a predictable environment that can encourage production. Banks can feel confident that they can provide loans. Inventors can feel more confident that someone won’t just copy their work and get away with it. Patents are also important because it ensures that the discovery is publicly documented.

But as previously mentioned, patents also have drawbacks. Patent trolls use patents for idle speculation, holding valuable ideas for ransom. Patents contribute to a climate of high liability for new inventors, because with so many patents it is impossible to know when violations occur.

To ensure patents are only held by people who intend to use them, and only while they are intending to use them, a tax incentive system could be very helpful.

Patent values could be self-assessed by the inventor and changed at any time. The rate of tax will gradually rise over time, based on the self-assessment. If particular patent holders decide the taxes are too onerous, they can simply lower their assessment, or relinquish it into the public domain.  Anyone is allowed to place bids that are higher than that self-assessed value, and this will initiate an auction. The proceeds go to the current holder.

Auctions would be open to anyone, including the government. This would provide a vehicle by which we can use the democratic process to incentivize scientific research. Since the government could buy the patent and release it into the public domain.

Some may argue that patents are nothing more than a right to sue for violation, and do not encourage innovation. This is particularly true today considering that many technologies require a combination of existing technologies, involving multiple patent holders who are often in it to speculate. However, this dynamic would vanish if patents had high holding costs and could be publicly auctioned at any time. Patent holders would have an incentive to work with others quickly because holding onto a patent would be like holding a very expensive hot potato.

Patents as a Privilege

Founding Father and third President of the United States Thomas Jefferson is the earliest authority on American patent law, but his view on the matter was characterized by skepticism unless patents were for the public good. He was generally opposed to any kind of monopoly, and believed that ideas were both unstoppably contagious and not fit to “be a subject of property”.

“Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody,” he said.

The attachment of property rights to biology, and all ideas for that matter should be treated with great care, both because the natural world was not created by any one of us, and because exclusive rights to innovate need to come with a duty to use the necessary natural resources well. It is not for us to plant our flag and claim ‘this is mine!’ but to consider ourselves stewards, with a duty to use natural resources in ways that will ultimately improve our lives and the lives of others.


Featured image: lisichik via Pixabay.



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