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Corporations Are Patenting Human Genes and Tissues -- Here's Why That's Terrifying

A medical ethicist explains the dark implications of corporate medical patents and the nightmarish scenario of our medical-industrial complex.

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BJ: How do these medical patent laws actually impede innovation?

HW: A really good example of this, because the court case is about to go to the Supreme Court soon, are the gene patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that predispose women to breast cancer. They're very important genes and there are nine patents held on them by Myriad Genetics. And Myriad Genetics has behaved like a very smart capitalist. For a long time, it has minimized the number of people whom it will license access to the genes. Researchers who have been working with the genes, trying to find better treatments for breast cancer, have received cease and desist letters from lawyers at Myriad's behest, saying, "We control this gene, we hold the patent, you can't work on it without our permission," which they often decline to give.

So that's a problem right now. Then look at the pricing of the test for women who want to characterize their risk for breast cancer. And most women of course don't need this test but the direct-to-consumer advertising by Myriad confuses women and really makes it look like more women do, which will of course increase their profits. It will also unnecessarily scare a lot of women and induce many more women than should to pay Myriad's $3,000 to $4,000 fee.

A recent development is especially nasty because now you can pay the $3,000 to $4,000 fee, but there's also an additional test, a relatively new test, based again on the genes. And if you want that, you have to pay an additional $600. Obviously if you're a woman at risk, you're not going to consider that $600 optional. So that's a huge amount of money.

BJ: What happens if within the legal framework of today's medical patent process a researcher seeks a more altruistic route, similar to what Jonas Salk did with the polio vaccine? Is that even possible today or is that individual crushed by the system?

HW: It is possible today and that's a great question because one of the really exciting positive things that has happened is that, you know, certainly not just me and people like me who are criticizing them -- a lot of medical researchers, as I said before, are seeing how damaging this paradigm is and they're coming up with viable alternatives.

The Gates Foundation is probably the best-known example. Bill Gates has worked with a longstanding initiative to bring vaccines to the developing world -- its acronym is GAVI. He's also worked with the governments in the developing world and come up with a model called Advanced Market Directives. Basically, what they're doing is they're coming up with funds and pooling their funds and saying to pharmaceutical companies, "If you will develop, for example, a malaria vaccine that's cheap and works well for the developing world, we will pay you, we will make sure you earn a profit." And they were successful. They came up with a vaccine -- quite a few actually -- but one in particular costs $70 in the United States. It only cost 50 cents in Nigeria because of their model.

Now, I hasten to say, we're not out of the woods yet because all of the pharmaceutical companies that did it -- which I think is wonderful that they're going along with the model and giving it a try -- but they counted this as something beneficial that they were doing. Which is not exactly the case.

They're doing this because they're paid and it's being guaranteed by others. And GAVI, the group that helped guarantee the payment is already $3 billion in debt because of it. So that means that even though this has worked in a couple of cases, I'm worried that it may not be a viable long-term model.

 
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