God bless the American Civil Liberties Union: they're launching a lawsuit challenging the patent on BRCA1 and BRCA2, two genes which, if they mutate, significantly increase women's chances of breast or ovarian cancer.
Intellectual rights to the genes are currently owned by Myriad Genetics, which won't allow other companies to research or test the genes. Women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer sometimes choose to test for gene mutations, basing important life decisions on the results. Using its monopoly position, Myriad Genetics charges these women US$3,000 for the test.
The rationale for intellectual ownership of genetic material is a market one: the likelihood of profit motivates the owner to invest in research into the genes and related health problems. The Council for Responsible Genetics supports the ACLU's lawsuit, stating:
The patent, a tool originally created to insure that inventors could share in the financial returns and benefits deriving from the use of their inventions, has become the primary mechanism through which the private sector has advanced its claims to ownership over genes, proteins and entire organisms. No individual, institution or corporation should be able to hold patents or claim ownership rights over genes or gene sequences, whether naturally occurring or modified.
It's a good comment - but is there any ethical room at all for patenting in such fundamental areas of human wellbeing? What are the alternatives to market-driven medical science?