Patenting of Life

brought to you by: Emmarie M. and Kelly K.


What is it?

Patenting life is the attempt to own genetically engineered life forms. This may include genetically altered plant tissues, animals, multi-cellular organisms like bacteria and human genes.

The History of Patenting Life

The concept of patenting of life started in 1971, after the General Electric Corporation filed a patent application for a bacteria that digests oil. Originally, the patent office rejected the claim. General Electric appealed to the Supreme Court and the appeal was granted, in a 5 to 4 vote. The narrow margin of victory shows that it was not a clear-cut case, but in the end, the bacteria were defined as a "human-made invention" not a product of nature.

In 1976, UCLA doctors removed rare, "hairy cell" leukemia cells from John Moore's spleen. Moore signed a regular consent form, authorizing his cells to be used for research. This was not a normal case, however, and his cells were used to develop the "Mo cell" line, a line of cancer- fighting antibacterial proteins. The doctors received a patent for the cell line in 1984. When Moore sued for some of the profits off of his own leukemia cells - worth $3 billion in the stock market - he lost in 1990 in the California Supreme Court. This was the first case of humans, or a part of humans being patented.


An example of hairy cell leukemia like that of John Moore.

How does it work?

The process of patenting life is very long and expensive. First a company must develop new genetic material in an organism. This is considered their "invention". Then the company has to check to make sure that no other scientists have already developed the same material. This is not common for new genetic material. Large companies have patent lawyers to research for them and write the patent. In the official document, the company must explain how their new creation will be used and beneficial. Once the patent is passed, they have full rights. If anyone else wants to use their genetically altered organism, they must pay the company that made it.

There are restrictions in the patenting of life process. New discoveries of previously existing organisms cannot be patented. For example, if a scientist found a new bird, they could not own it. Also, the US Patent Office set up their own restrictions relating to the patenting of life. In 1985 they announced that plants, seeds, and tissues could be patented. In 1987 this was changed to include all multicellular organism, except humans. Today human genetic information can be patented. However, an entire human cannot be owned, only the genetically engineered portion. This issue has created controversy between different groups who dispute whether one can own a human life.

What does it do?

There are positive and negative effects of patenting new life. Companies make profit off of their new scientific discoveries and creations. Others have to pay if they need to use the material patented. Also, this promostes growth in companies and healthy competition between them. Many companies are striving to be the first to patent a new genetically altered life form. This has created what many call the "Gene Rush".

There is a big controversy over the issue of patenting of life because of the negative effects it could have on the world community. Third world countries would be unable to pay the royalities on genetic patents, and would therefore lose access to scientific advances and the information trade. Countries like Brazil, India, and Argentina realize the potential negative effects and forbid patenting pharmaceuticals because they're so important to the general public that no one should "monopolize" them.

People like Dr. Manuel Patarroyo are trying to counteract negative effects of patenting of life. He donated his anti-malaria vaccine to the World Health Organization and gave them exclusive, royalty- free rights.

In addition, food supply could be jeopardized by monopolies over farmer's harvests. Consumers would then pay higher prices for food. Human rights issues have also been raised by patenting of life. Human rights could be eroded if parts of them become the property of patent holders. They could be seen as inventions, not human beings, like in the case of John Moore's cells.


A protest against patenting life.


Links

Nobel Peace Prize Winner talks about patenting of life

Patenting of Life controversy in Italy

The Future for Patents on Life

The Church of Scotland

Body and Soul: The Price of Biotech

Nobel Winner Slams Life Patents

Genetics Resources Actions International

 

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