While it’s true that the right medications for the right conditions really can save lives, it’s equally true that Big Pharma really doesn’t give a crap about your health. Of course you already know that, but if you ever doubted for a moment, consider this:
Until 2013 it was entirely legal to patent human genes.
In fact, a frightening percentage of the human genome was “protected” by patents.
Protected from what through?
From anyone trying to study it, or develop medical treatments based on what could be learned.
Big Pharma wants to own your DNA
That’s right. Until only two years ago, biotech companies could take out a patent on a part of your body. The part of you which decides whether your eyes will be blue or brown. Whether you will be short or tall. The part that decides whether you will live well into old age, or develop cancer and die.
As recently as 2013, a shocking 20 percent of that DNA was under patent. Not the part that gives you blue eyes, of course. No one but your family cares about that. Instead, Big Pharma patented the genes that cause breast cancer. The ones which predict whether you’ll get Alzheimer’s. Or Parkinson’s. Or prostate cancer.
Why? When the Human Genome Project set out to map our DNA back in 1990, it was a collaborative effort by scientists. It was a non-profit program, designed purely for the greater good. Mapping our DNA, we were told, would open up new possibilities for testing and treatment for all kinds of diseases. And when the project concluded in 2001, it was hailed as the most important thing to happen in the past hundred years.
But long before the project was over, Big Pharma was looking to make a buck.
Big Pharma doesn’t care if you die of cancer, as long as they profit
What started out as a collaborative project with altruistic goals soon devolved into a money grab. Once the Human Genome Project actually started unlocking the secrets of DNA, the race was on to make a profit from it. Biotech firms started patenting genes left and right in an effort to keep competitors from being able to study them. And some of the patent-seekers where the very scientists who’d been working on the project to begin with.
In 1998 Mark Skolnick, of the University of Utah, left the project to found Myriad Genetics. Myriad Genetics then filed for a patent on the BRCA2 gene, which is associated with breast cancer. Genetic testing for this gene can tell you the likelihood of developing breast cancer later, and research into it may someday even lead to a cure. But with the patent, Myriad Genetics effectively ensured that no one else could do anything with it.
Only they could market a test to check for the gene. Only they could do research on it. Because they were the only ones with access to the gene, they could charge whatever they wanted for the test, and make it available to others - like doctors, hospitals, and labs in other countries - or keep it to themselves and not allow access.
The same applied to research. Since they alone were allowed to research it, any results they discovered were private property, unavailable to other researchers. On top of that, it meant that they could charge however much they wanted to for any test or treatment they developed, because they had legally wiped out all competition. So the breast cancer test, which could save hundreds or thousands of lives, was effectively out of reach of many people. And there was no possibility for a second opinion, since they owned the only test. Of course Myriad Genetics wasn’t the only company to do such things, but they are one of the most visible.
The Supreme Court ruled against patenting genes…sort of
As companies started patenting genetic sequences, the lawsuits began. The case that finally made it to the Supreme Court involved Myriad Genetics and their patent on two breast cancer genes. The company argued that simply by removing the genes from blood, they had invented something brand new, and thus could patent it.
Does that mean my blood or saliva can be patented once it’s taken out of my body? After all, both cases involve taking a naturally occurring substance and removing it from where it normally occurs. How is that different? It’s a ridiculous argument. The Supreme Court agreed.
In 2013 the court ruled that simply isolating a gene wasn’t grounds for a company to patent it. Natural substances aren’t eligible for patents. This is a given. And genes, the court said, are a product of nature.
Score one for common sense.
However, they left common sense at the door when they added that the company might be able to patent a synthetic form of those genes.
Is this an invitation to play Dr. Frankenstein?
Big Pharma has no use for natural substances if they can make a synthetic version. This is even truer if there’s money to be made. The ruling, while a huge score for humanity on one hand, left the door wide open to all kinds of Frankenstein-esque possibilities. Could this turn into a Monsanto type situation? Will biotech firms create synthetic genes and then sue people for passing them on to their children?
It’s a sure bet that companies will now put less time and effort into researching the freely available natural genes and will instead focus on creating new ones which they can patent. And while their effort goes into creating fake genes with who knows what effects, research will languish. Treatments will go undiscovered. Cures will not be pursued. Because let’s face it - if it doesn’t make money, Big Pharma isn’t interested. Since your DNA isn’t patentable, it’s no longer interesting. Dr. Frankenstein’s lab-grown gene now holds a lot more promise.
Who knows? They may even create a new genetic disease they can sell you drugs for.