Patenting Genes: US Supreme Court Says No

dna_doublehelixLast week, in a landmark decision that is expected to have far-reaching consequences, the United States Supreme Court announced in a unanimous decision that no part of the human DNA sequence – or the DNA of any living organism – is patentable. This decision came after thirty years of patents being issued on genes for the sake of genetic research, and which was spurred on by recent developments, such as the publication of the human genome.

Specifically, the case came down to a claim made by Myriad Genetics, the company that discovered the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genetic mutations that can lead to higher incidences of breast cancer. They patented these sequences in the hopes of having a lucrative investment when it came to future screenings and treatments. But for many, this signaled that a line was being crossed, and the case went to court.

us_supremecourtFor critics of Myriad’s attempt to patent the genetic mutations, they claimed that this made screening often prohibitively expensive. Angelina Jolie was one such person, who drew attention to the fact that her mother – who died of breast cancer – and women like her would be unable to afford the treatment if Myriad got it’s way. Myriad fought back by saying that without the possibility of future financial gain, there would be no incentive for companies to sink money into searching for these genes.

In the end, the Supreme Court voted 9 to 0 that genes are products of nature and not human-made inventions, which makes them ineligible for a patent. For many, this decision has temporarily closed Pandora’s Box and prevented corporations from obtaining the right to carve up the human genome and lay claim to it, a process which many believed would lead to monopolies of gene treatments and the potential ownership of human beings themselves.

GMO_seedsOn the other hand, the court’s ruling did not apply to one other key issue: synthetic genes. Basically, genetic modifications that are made my companies for the sake of modifying foods, agricultural produce, and even animals are still up for grabs. And at least one major corporation is pretty pleased about this. In allowing for synthetic genes to remain a grey area, Monsanto is likely to continue seeking to patent its genetically-modified seeds.

Just over a month ago, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the giant agribusiness in one of the most important lawsuits filed by the company in recent years. In essence, the court’s ruled that an Indiana soybean farmer was infringing on Monsanto’s soybean patent by buying the seeds from a nearby grain elevator and then saving them.

agribusinessOf the 144 lawsuits filed against 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses throughout the U.S. in the past few years (according to the Center for Food Safety), this case was especially important. It essentially set the precedent that anyone selling genetically-modified grains had to pay royalties to the company responsible for their creation. This in turn has long-reaching implications which go far beyond agribusiness.

Though it is still a grey area, the legal battle over modified genes seems all but decided at this point. Whereas natural genes cannot be subject to patents, anything a company modifies in a lab already have been. But given the growth of skunkworks and biohacking labs around the world, there is still time for small operations and independent companies to get in on the action.

As time has shown, diversification is the natural enemy of monopolization. But by far the most important thing of all, whether it’s about patenting genes or modifying them for our use, is for people to remain informed on the issue. As long as people know what decisions are being made behind closed doors, they will have a shot at controlling the outcome.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, (2)

The Future is Here: Using 3D Printing and DNA to Recreate Faces

strangervisions-1In what is either one of the most novel or frightening stories involving 3D printing and genetic research, it seems that an artist named Heather Dewey-Hagborg has been using the technology to recreate the faces of litterbugs. This may sound like something out of a dystopian novel – using a high-tech scenario to identify perpetrators of tiny crimes – but in fact, it is the basis of her latest art project.

It’s known as Stranger Visions, a series of 3D printed portraits based on DNA samples taken from objects found on the streets of Brooklyn. Using samples of discarded gum and litter collected from the streets, a her work with a DIY biology lab in Brooklyn called Genspace – where she met a number of biologists who taught her everything she now knows about molecular biology and DNA – she was able to reconstruct what the strangers looked like and then printed the phenotypes out as a series of 3D portraits.

According to Dewey-Hagborg, the inspiration for this project came to her while waiting for a therapy session, when she noticed a framed print on the wall that contained a small hair inside the cracked glass. After wondering who the hair belonged to, and what the person looked like, she became keenly aware of the genetic trail left by every person in their daily life, and began to question what physical characteristics could be identified through the DNA left behind on a piece of gum or cigarette butt.

strangervisions-3In a recent interview, Dewey-Hagborg explained the rather interesting and technical process behind her art:

So I extract the DNA in the lab and then I amplify certain regions of it using a technique called PCR – Polymerase Chain Reaction. This allows me to study certain regions of the genome that tend to vary person to person, what are called SNPs or Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms.

I send the results of my PCR reactions off to a lab for sequencing and what I get back are basically text files filled with sequences of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, the nucleotides that compose DNA. I align these using a bioinformatics program and determine what allele is present for a particular SNP on each sample.

strangervisions-5

Then I feed this information into a custom computer program I wrote which takes all these values which code for physical genetic traits and parameterizes a 3d model of a face to represent them. For example gender, ancestry, eye color, hair color, freckles, lighter or darker skin, and certain facial features like nose width and distance between eyes are some of the features I am in the process of studying.

I add some finishing touches to the model in 3d software and then export it for printing on a 3d printer. I use a Zcorp printer which prints in full color using a powder type material, kind of like sand and glue.

The resulting portraits are bizarre approximations of anonymous people who unknowingly left their genetic material on a random city street. Naturally, there are plenty of people who wonder how accurate her approximations are. Well, according to Dewey-Hagborg, the portraits bear a “family resemblance” to the subject, and at this time, no person has never recognized themselves in any of her exhibitions. Yet…

strangervisions-4And of course, there are limitations with this sort of phenotype-DNA identification. For starters, it is virtually impossible to determine the age of a person from their DNA alone. In addition, facial features like scars and hair growth cannot be gauged, so Dewey-Hagborg casts each portrait as if the person were around 25 years of age.

And yet, I cannot help but feel that there is some awesome and terrible potential in what Dewey-Hagborg has created here. While her artistic vision had to do with the subject of identity and anonymity in our society, there is potential here for something truly advanced and invasive. Already it has been considered that DNA identification could be the way of the future, where everyone’s identity is kept in a massive database that can either be used to track them or eliminate as suspects in criminal cases.

But in cases where the person’s DNA is not yet on file, police would no longer need to rely on sketch artists to identify potential perps. Instead, they could just reconstruct their appearances based on a single strand of DNA, and use existing software to correct for age, hair color, facial hair, scars, etc, and then share the resulting images with the public via a public database or press releases.

strangervisions-2And as Dewey-Hagborg’s own project shows, the potential for public exposure and identification is huge. With a sophisticated enough process and a quick turnover rate, cities could identity entire armies of litterbugs, polluters, petty criminals and even more dangerous offenders, like pedophiles and stalkers, and publicly shame them by posting their faces for all to see.

But of course, I am forced to acknowledge that Dewey-Hagborg conducted this entire project using a DIY genetics lab and through her own ardent collection process. Whereas some would see here an opportunity for Big Brother to mess with our lives, others would see further potential for a democratic, open process where local communities are able to take genetics and identification into their own hands.

Like I said, the implications and potential being shown here are both awesome and scary!

Source: thisiscolossal.com

Patenting Genes: New Questions over Property Rights

People walk in front of the Supreme Court building in WashingtonToday, in Washington DC, the US Supreme Court heard arguments made for and against the belief that the human genome can be claimed as intellectual property. For almost thirty years now, US authorities have been awarding patents on genes to universities and medical companies. But given the recent publication of the human genome, this practice could have far reaching consequences for human rights.

Ever since USC researchers published ENCODE – The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project – scientists and law-makers have been scrambling to determine what the next step in human genetics research will be. In addition to using the complete catalog of genetic information for the sake of bioresearch, medicine and programmable DNA structures, there are also legal issues that go back decades.

encodeFor example, if companies have the right to patent genes, what does that say about the human body? Do property rights extend to our mitochondrial DNA, or do the rights over a particular gene belong to those who discovered it, mapped its functions, or those who just plain planted their flag in it first? One of the most interesting aspects of the 21st century may be the extension of property wars and legal battles down to the cellular level…

Currently, researchers and private companies work to isolate genes in order to use them in tests for gene-related illnesses, and in emerging gene therapies. According to researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in the US, patents now cover some 40% of the human genome, but that is expected to increase in the coming years, accounting for greater and greater swaths of human and other living creature’s DNA.Genes1This particular lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in conjunction with the Public Patent Foundation, relates to seven specific patents that were made on two human genes held by US firm Myriad Genetics. These genes are linked to breast and ovarian cancer, and Myriad has developed a test to look for mutations in these genes that may increase the risk of developing cancer.

The company argued that the genes patented were “isolated” by them, making them products of human ingenuity and therefore patentable. But of course, The ACLU rejected this argument, saying that genes are products of nature, and therefore can’t be patented under US or any other man-made law.

genesWithout a doubt, there concerns are grounded in what this could mean for future generations, if people themselves could be subject to patents simply because they carry the gene that a company holds the patent on. And who can blame them? With almost half of the stuff that makes our bodies tick belonging to private companies, how big of a stretch would it be for companies to effectively own a human being?

Alternately, if companies are not allowed to patent genes, what will this mean for medical and bio research? Will cures, treatments, and medical processes become a complete free for all, with no one holding any particular distribution rights or having their exclusive work recognized. And of course, this would have the effect of hurting a research or corporate firms bottom line. So you can expect them to have something to say about it!

It’s a new age, people, with patents and prospecting extending not only into space (with asteroids), but into the human genome as well. Predictable I suppose. As humanity began expanding its field of view, focusing on wider and more distant fields, as well as gaining a more penetrating and deeper understanding of how everything works, it was only a matter of time before we started squabbling over territory and boundaries again!

Sources: bbc.co.uk, reuters.com