Why Discussions around Whether to Patent Human Genes Matter to Everyone

NPR yesterday published an article reporting on a high profile case about patenting human genes, which generated a lot of chatter among both biotech business and science communities.

Fortunately, it looks like as of now, I still don’t have to pay for genes I got from my mom and dad–the Supreme Court was skeptical about the claim that human genes can be patented.

I know very little about genetic science but this deficit of knowledge matters not. I know I own my body, including every gene in my every cell. In that spirit, patenting a human gene is nothing different from patenting my arms or legs, which is obviously a ridiculous thing to say. It is actually not that difficult to draw the line: no one should be granted exclusivity for anything that already exists; patent should only be given to things that are newly created, and a human gene is not one of them.

Although on the surface the news may not seem to have immediate impact on the general public, the question discussed here is relevant and important to everyone—as both the science and business communities have agreed that personalized medicine is the future of medicine, human genes will be a centerpiece for the innovation process. The precedent that the Supreme Court is going to create will have fundamental impact on medical innovation in the next several decades.

Scientists and companies should be rewarded for achieving breakthroughs that can save people’s lives from diseases or improve the quality of patients’ lives. Financial incentives can attract top talents, expedite research cycle and ultimately benefit patients as life-saving drugs might reach the market sooner. However, granting a patent to an unstudied human gene contributes nothing to the process but embedding hurdles to medical innovation.

In an era that everyone is excited about “big data,” crowdsourcing is the answer to finding some of the most pressing unmet needs in medicine. Collaboration, data sharing and cross-industry integration should be where we are headed to. Patenting the most basic research ingredient—human genes adds significant barriers for researchers to access resources, delays meaningful findings and increases both psychological and financial burdens on consumers. Personalized cancer therapy often costs about $100,000 per year. And the gene-test to figure out whether a patient is allowed to be on the drug is also expensive. If the target gene is patented, the cost will go even higher. And we, the regular consumers will eventually pay for the additional cost.

As I am waiting for the final ruling, I wanted to give a shout out to my genes—you guys are awesome and I’m so grateful to have you around!

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