A pharmaceutical company owns a patent on genes damaged by breast cancer. Such patents can retard research -- with potentially life-or-death consequences.

Here, two weeks after having her left breast removed, Gaila is told by her oncologist that the cancer as spread to her lymph system and that she may have a tumor in her remaining breast.

Photo by ŠJana Birchum, Impact Visuals.

There's no doubt about who owns Dolly, the sheep who made front-page news recently as the first mammal ever to be cloned. Before they cloned Dolly from a cell taken from her mother, researchers made sure that their biotechnology company had applied for patents on all sheep produced by the cloning process.

Dolly's cloners are part of a major but largely invisible trend over the last decade: Drug companies are acquiring patents on human cell lines and on thousands of human genes your genes, my genes. Myriad Pharmaceutical owns patents on the human genes that are damaged in breast cancer. Sequana Therapeutics has filed for patents on the cells and genes of indigenous tribes in New Guinea. W. R. Grace owns patents on genetically engineered cotton and soybean plants.


With a patent, corporations get a 20-year monopoly over their "invention." No one else can produce it or use it, even for medical or human welfare, without paying fees to the patent holders. Most people associate patents with true inventions of machines, novel processes, or chemical reactions. But over the last decade, private corporations have moved to extend the monopoly of ownership and use inherent in patents to genes, proteins, cell lines and even strains of organisms.

Farmers have historically owned the cattle, pigs or soybeans they raised themselves. But no farmer owned the rights to the entire species or had the right to prevent others from raising the same stock. In contrast, W. R. Grace, through its patents for genetically modified soybean plants, owns the world rights to plant and raise these crops. Though sheep breeders sell their improved stock, they can't keep the new owners from breeding more sheep. In contrast, Dolly's cloners own not just Dolly but the rights to all cloned sheep.


The plant and animal species that support human life on Earth have evolved over hundreds of millions of years. They are part of the common and essential heritage of all people. Allowing corporations to patent -- to gain monopoly ownership of organisms and their components -- means that life forms are being converted into corporate property. This constitutes a vast new form privatization.

Since competition is suppressed, new drugs and diagnostics developed through biotechnology can be sold at inflated prices, resulting in superprofits for the corporations. This is one of the reasons new therapies are so expensive. Eli Lilly company owns the patent on the human insulin gene. They have the legal right to prevent other institutions, including nonprofits, from producing human insulin for diabetics. Biotechnology offers extraordinary promise for solving many problems -- but not when it is being exploited by corporations looking for patent-protected superprofits. Neither cloned sheep nor cloned humans will help us combat hunger, ill health or social inequality.

U.S. patent laws were written primarily by Thomas Jefferson in the aftermath of the revolutionary war. The original idea was to make sure that creative people who were developing useful ideas and inventions did not starve. Jefferson wrote that wherever the limited monopoly was in conflict with larger public interest, the public interest should take precedence. He did not foresee that patents would end up being assigned to multinational corporations.

From earliest times, plants and animals were excluded from patent laws, partly because early patent law drafters believed that human food sources should not come under corporate control. But as corporations entered agriculture and food production, seed companies and plant breeders sought patent protection for certain food and ornamental plants. In the 1920s and again in the 1960s, farmer and consumer groups resisted this effort.

When biomedical researchers developed genetic engineering technology in the late 1970s, new patenting controversies broke out. Scientists at General Electric applied for a patent on a genetically altered bacteria. The case went to the Supreme Court in 1980, which ruled 5 to 4 that such strains of bacteria qualified as inventions. This opened the floodgates. Soon Harvard Medical School scientists patented a genetically modified mouse. Though the issue has never been addressed by Congress, thousands of patents have been granted on genes, animal cell lines, and even human cell lines.


Contrary to the claims of patent lawyers, patenting retards progress in biomedical research. It introduces secrecy when what we need is openness. It slows the publication and sharing of important results, because once a result is reported publicly, it cannot be patented. And so researchers drawn into the web of the patent process do not report their results, even informally, until they have successfully passed through the expensive patent application and granting process.

What's more, allowing corporations to patent genes, biological molecules and cell lines distorts the priorities of biomedical research and the healthcare system. Exploiting patents requires selling consumers a product -- not keeping them from contracting disease. You can't, for instance, make superprofits by identifying carcinogens and removing them from the ecosystem.


The remedy is clear. Patent laws are not enshrined in the Constitution directly; the Constitution only gives Congress the right to grant patents to insure the "useful arts." Congress should clarify the law by excluding living organisms and their parts from patent protection. In Europe, India and South America there are already social movements opposing life patents. In the U.S. the Council for Responsible Genetics, in coalition with over 20 other organizations, has launched a No Patents on Life Campaign calling on Congress to exclude living organisms and their components from patenting. (For information: CRG, 5 Upland Rd, Cambridge, MA 02140; 617-868-0870.)

--Jonathan King 

Jonathan King is Professor of Molecular Biology at MIT and on the Board of the Council for Responsible Genetics. He is a member of the Greater Boston Labor Party chapter.  

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