So you’ve watched Orphan Black for a while and one of the big end season 1 revelations turns out to be …
-Beware, spoilers ahead ..-
… evil corporation Dryad has actually encoded a copyright on the DNA of the clones. And one may think, so what’s the big deal? Yep, you knew you were all clones so why care if you find hard coded copyright in your genes? This is discussed further in the series, but we can move immediately to the real world on this.
Actually gene patenting is a very spiky issue. And we can discuss on law and consequences. Let’s start with law.
Human genes cannot be patented in US, according to a Supreme Court Ruling released on June 13, 2013. The argument is clear: a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and, hence, not patent-eligible. Think, for example, that someone wants to patent air, or water.
Of course, major companies working on the field claim that they are investing large amounts of money on research to isolate nucleotide sequences in specific genes that may help with preemptive diagnosis and/or treatment of severe conditions like cancer. Despite this claim, it’s been stated that any naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent-eligible merely because it has been isolated. However, companies can actually patent sequences that are synthetically created: in the case of Orphan Black, any DNA sequence not coming from the biological parents of the clones as such. If this law was applied to Orphan Black and assuming that clones DNA were mostly synthetic, Cosima would actually be under copyright infringement if she studied her own DNA to heal herself unless she worked directly for Dryad. And that brings us all the way into (real) consequences.
Major protests against gene patenting focus (with reason) on monopolies. If a company has a patent on a sequence of DNA that is related to, e.g. breast cancer, they’d be the only ones allowed for testing of that sequence and, hence, they could ask for as much money as they wanted for any test. Furthermore, scientists not belonging to the company would not be allowed to keep studying on that specific sequence, so progress would slow down. This is a proven fact: let’s evaluate the Myriad Genetics case, which actually led to the United States Supreme Court decision.
Myriad Genetics Inc. was prevented from holding patents on two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are linked with a increase in the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Using its patents, they have tested more than 1 million women since the late 1990s for mutations that often lead to breast and ovarian cancer. The price of the procedure was 3340 USD for breast cancer, plus an additional amount of 700 USD for final confirmation if the initial result was not clear enough. Shortly after the decision against gene patenting was released, DNATraits, a division of Gene by Gene, said they could offer the test for just $995.
Actually, Orphan Black even suggests at (hypothetical) consequences derived from patenting artificial sequences of DNA. If one can actually mutate a sequence inside a person to, let’s say, achieve resistance against cancer, any child of the person could actually carry the mutated sequence and, by definition, be a walking copyright infringement … or (partially) belong to the company.
In any case, thousands of genes have been patented thus far. It would be interesting to keep in mind why inventions like the polio vaccine were never patented. And there’s still people who wonder why we spend money on public research …
Source: Live Science