Selling genetics to the highest bidder

Profits Pending: How Life Patents Represent the Biggest Swindle of the 21st Century

By Matthew Albright

Common Courage Press

234 pages

In her six short years of life, Dolly the cloned sheep might have raised hopes for people interested in either shameless narcissism or stem cell treatments. But those hopes are rapidly deflating as the consequences of biotechnology are seeping into peoples’ consciences.

Many of those consequences are found in Profits Pending, a book by local author Matthew Albright. The book is primarily a scientific look at how gene patenting in the United States devastates medical advancement more than it fosters it. Subtitled How Life Patents Represent the Biggest Swindle of the 21st Century, the book might seem to a naysayer a whacked-out view based on conspiracy. Unfortunately, the use of the word “swindle” lends itself to such a conclusion. However, the book is based on anything but conspiracy.

Instead, it draws on a variety of scientific data and discussion from organizations fighting to ensure science and politics don’t stifle inventions that could save peoples’ lives. Essentially, Albright writes about how the U.S. patent system allows corporations, universities and research institutions to monopolize and profit from things nature created. In other words, they are taking human genes, human proteins and other molecules found in the body and legally protecting them.

As an example, Albright briefly tells readers about the Greenberg family. Two of the Greenberg children died from a rare neurological disorder called Canavan disease. While still only infants, medical researchers used them as a starting point to begin researching the genetic causes of the disease. The Greenberg parents and 160 other families provided blood and tissue samples for the project. Ultimately, a researcher at Miami Children’s Hospital identified a mutation of a specific gene that was associated with the disease. The information was later used to develop a test to screen for the mutations. In the process, the hospital successfully patented the gene. But the story doesn’t result in a cure for the disease. In fact, it doesn’t even result in significant gain in the medical community.

By patenting the gene, the hospital restricted, even altogether denied, other researchers from investigating Canavan disease. Researchers who used the screening test were legally bound to pay royalties to the hospital. In effect, the Greenbergs and other families whose children died from Canavans handed the hospital a pot of gold.

“What the hospital has done is a desecration of the good that has come from our childrens’ short lives,” the father of the Greenbergs told the Chicago Tribune. “I can’t look at it any other way.”

Albright jumps off from this story to explain that patenting genes in the name of medical advancement is just a bunch of hooey, especially since reportedly 10 percent of illnesses people suffer are caused by a combination of genes, environment and lifestyle.

Albright writes: “Companies are now patenting diseases themselves like tuberculosis and staph infection. Instead of helping to prevent or cure these diseases, however, the race for these patents engenders secrecy in research and creates walls between scientists.”

On the surface, the argument for patents seems mostly clear – that genes must be patentable in order for firms to recoup their investment in identifying them. But as Albright goes on to argue, this practice affects society beyond medical advancement. These patents (known as “life patents”) threaten the already slippery slope of intellectual property. They create monopolies and abuse political power. And because gene patent ownership is so important to biotech companies’ stock market valuation, they can cause market upheaval (remember in 2000, when former President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair sent biotech stocks plunging by suggesting that raw human gene sequence data “should be made freely available”?).

With the varying implications of how we treat genes (be it for diseases or cloning), there is an astounding amount of theory, evidence and opinion surrounding these patents. In his book, Albright does, by and large, an impressive job of explaining this issue in laymen’s terms. Usually, he keeps the text to palatable ideas and phrases. He also provides extensive notes so that readers can judge for themselves how much of a “swindle” this is (25 pages of notes in a book with chapter pages that don’t quite number 200). The only things that bog down the book are Albright’s subheads and random quotes by talking heads. Still, these things are not enough to damn the book to the resale bin.

However, this book does not necessarily have mass readership appeal. It’s more likely to call out to academics that enjoy a stimulating dialogue about a topic fit for a doctoral dissertation. Still Albright works to ferret out the legalese and extenuating arguments, and he delivers a message on a complex topic that is more than just about counterfeit sheep. It’s about how all of our genes can be easily sold to the highest or swiftest bidder.







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