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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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Do you think that granting corporations the rights of people in the Citizens United case is disturbing? Then contemplate the fact that corporations have been patenting human genes and tissues at alarming rates -- in the last 30 years, more than 40,000 patents have been granted on genes alone.

As the Occupy movement fights against the unmitigated influence of corporations on our lives, author and medical ethicist Harriet Washington's new book,  Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself--And the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future, is a timely wakeup call to protect the very essence of human life from the medical-industrial complex. 

In a recent phone interview with AlterNet, Washington discussed the dark implications of corporate medical patents, how we find ourselves in this nightmarish scenario and what needs to be done to stop medical research profits from trumping human health. Washington is also the author of Medical Apartheid , which received the National Book Critics Circle Award. She has been a fellow in medical ethics at Harvard Medical School, a senior research scholar at the National Center for Bioethics at Tuskegee University and a fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Brad Jacobson: The main piece of legislation that opened the door for corporations to begin patenting human life was the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. Can you tell us how this law was sold to the American people?

Harriet Washington: Just to recap what the Bayh-Dole Act is, basically it was a law that permitted for the first time universities to legally transfer their patents to private corporations, to sell them, license them. That had been virtually prohibited in the past because most of these new inventions had been developed with tax dollars. And the thinking had been, "If you develop things with our tax dollars, then we shouldn't allow them to go to private corporations who can establish a monopoly with their patents."

It was sold to the American public primarily by [former Indiana Sen.] Birch Bayh, who of course partnered with [former Kansas Sen.] Bob Dole. But it was Birch Bayh who made the argument that we have all these patents lying around, no one's doing anything with them. If we let corporations get them, then they'll develop them into needed medications. So people were told this is the root to get the medications and treatments that we need.

However, what's really interesting, though -- I went behind the scenes and of course I saw that, rather than being any kind of groundswell of popular support, the law actually passed on the last hour of the last day of the last congressional session because of some good ol' boy networking.

BJ: Also in 1980, the legal counterpart for this corporate opening came with the court decision Diamond v. Chakrabarty, in which a scientist's patenting of an oil-eating bacteria was contested. But how is this different than what had been patentable in the past?

HW: It's certainly a good question because living things have been patented in the past. That's a misconception people have. Louis Pasteur had patented a yeast. Takamine [Hideo] had patented adrenaline. Numerous living things had been patented before. However, there were often legal challenges by people who would say, "This patent is not really valid because you can't patent a product of nature."

So in 1980, when Ananda Chakrabarty, a researcher at General Electric, decided to try to patent some bacteria that he had intensively engineered to be able to "eat crude oil," the U.S.] patent office said, "We'll patent the process you use, but we're not going to patent these bacteria. They're living things and only inventions can be patented. We can't patent products of nature."

 
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