As I reach the end of my time here at the University, more and more of my classes as an engineer concern the ethical dilemmas and responsibilities of engineers and scientists. It is our moral responsibility to not restrict research or technology that benefits society. Patents and intellectual property rights should have limitations when they pertain to chemicals that affect our health. I’m not talking about taking away the rights of pharmaceutical researchers to patent medicine, but rather the efforts made to patent our own genetics.

Just last week, the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetics, Health and Society announced a draft report recommending that genetic researchers be exempt from legal liability pertaining to patented genetic material. The issue boils down to this: Under current U.S. legal precedent, you can patent a naturally occurring gene in humans if you’ve figured out what it causes. That patent thereby gives you the right to block out or demand royalties from anyone who wants to create a test for that gene for something like health screening or research directly related to testing the gene. This exemption would grant other researchers legal protection if they wish to research tests for a patented gene.

While I can understand the original precedent in the 1980 case Diamond v. Chakrabarty that states genetically engineered life forms can be patented, patenting human genes based on simply discovering their use is an ethical minefield. The premise offered by some is that if you identify, for example, a gene that causes increased risk of cancer, you’ll be able to hold onto the patent for the right to eventually develop a test for that gene — a test you would hold exclusive rights over. The logic in this idea falls apart when you try to think about the issue with other parts of the body. Should the first doctor to figure out the function of certain human tissues or hormones do be allowed the right to claim dominion over that part of us? Should we be able to patent the problem without the solution, the discovery before the invention?

The issue becomes even more confusing when one considers who is responsible for the bulk of the work in curing or creating tests for diseases. Is it the researcher who discovers a gene’s purpose, or the researcher who makes a test or treatment that affects that gene? If more work is needed to create genetic treatments and tests, is granting a patent for the discovery of a gene’s function premature? Furthermore, is it morally acceptable that researchers who can discover gene purposes faster than others but develop treatments or tests slower than others have first rights to creating treatments and tests?

The worst outcome of not following through on exempting liability to genetic patents — one that one can only hope would be avoided by human compassion, if nothing else — is that patent holders may simply sit on their research and wait to collect royalties when others get impatient and develop tests of the gene on their own. From a business standpoint, collecting royalties from tests developed by outside parties at no cost to you could be lucrative. The third party developing the test would probably pass the royalty costs on to those seeking medical testing.

Especially in a competitive health care system where medical research and treatment are, to an extent, in competition, the monopolization of genetic testing will limit the extent and impact of such research for some time. Especially if only individual medical groups can test or treat a certain piece of genetic code, tests or treatments could become less available. If you want to patent genetic research, patent testing methods, instead of genes that are to be tested.

The precedent presented in the Diamond v. Chakrabarty case was centered on the idea that genetically engineered genes are tools to solve a particular problem. The spirit of that precedent should still remain: Genes in our body that may relate to disease are not artificial creations, but are part of many of us. If not for the sake of other researchers, but for patients and average people who could gain from better health testing, a line needs to be drawn that recognizes our genes are not inventions. By providing an exemption allowing researchers to test or treat our genes for our benefit, the government is helping researchers to fulfill their ethical duty to help people.

Ben Caleca can be reached at calecab@umich.edu.

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