Patently Wrong

In this interview, medical ethicist Harriet Washington describes the extent to which medical researchers use (and abuse) the patent system. She just published a book titled: Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself — And the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future. Many of her concerns mirror those in the agriculture community regarding patenting plant genetics.

Washington begins the interview by pointing to a major theme in Occupy Wall Street: corporate control over our lives. Corporations also exert tremendous control over life itself, she says, due to the fact they can own life through patents. More than 40,000 patents have been awarded on genes alone in the last 30 years, and more are pending.

The ethical concerns include whether researchers and corporations benefiting from this research are more interested in profit than healthy people. Another concern is the lack of transparency when genes and other human elements are taken, patented, and used without consent.

Universities are now more like arms of corporations, Washington explains, where they sell and license patents to corporations, including research funded by our tax dollars. She explains what she’s found at some universities: “They’ve adopted their models. They’ve adopted their culture. Now it is the patent not the patient that’s at the center of medical research. And it’s profit and patents that is motivating the decisions at universities just as it’s always dictated the behavior of corporations.”

The Bayh-Dole Act allowed universities (for the first time) to patent, license, and sell products of research to private corporations. “This is where the paradigm shift began,” Washington says. “Before, universities weren’t allowed to sell research.”

In agriculture, we’ve seen the same trend in our land grant universities, where public breeding programs experienced reduced support from our tax dollars at the same time that private firms started to invest heavily in research programs following Bayh-Dole. Many university programs now find themselves financially dependent on a concentrated industry sector. As a result, research goals narrow to meet the needs of specific industries, such as agricultural biotechnology, rather than the diverse needs of farmers.

Washington goes on to discuss the Myriad Genetics case, where the firm owns seven patents on genes related to breast cancer and developed expensive tests using these patented genes only to charge women thousands of dollars for the test, something Washington calls “nothing short of criminal.” Meanwhile, other researchers can’t work with these patented genes. This is a clear example of how research into cancer treatment is being stymied by the use of patents, Washington points out.

Lastly, developing countries are being forced to acknowledge the patent rights of countries like the U.S., and Washington provides examples of “biocolonialism.”

Is there hope? Washington ends the interview by explaining that the U.S. government can take away patent rights if they’re not being used. For example, if a company has the patent on a generic drug but isn’t producing the generic form.

Patent reform is badly needed to ensure that public dollars are working toward the public good, that research is conducted transparently and innovation can flourish, and, importantly, that living organisms are not owned and monopolized in the hands of a few.

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