GLW: Corporate piracy and genetics
Green Left Parramatta
glparramatta at SPAMgreenleft.org.au
Sat Aug 5 16:56:38 MDT 2000
The following article appeared in the latest
issue of Green Left Weekly
Australia's radical newspaper.
Corporate piracy and genetics
By Robyn Marshall
The resolution of the 3 billion-nucleotide sequence of the human
genome should be a time of great celebration of human scientific
endeavour and ingenuity. It opens the possibility of eliminating
4000 genetic diseases that afflict children, many with severe
physical and/or mental disabilities. It opens the possibility of
preventing the untimely death of adults, struck down by a
genetically inherited propensity to cancer or heart disease,
before they can fulfil their potential.
In fact, the very opposite will occur. Because the human genome
project (HGP) has been developed in a capitalist world -- one in
which private profit rules -- it will produce a legal and ethical
Multinational corporations will patent literally thousands of
unique sequences, and products based on the new knowledge will be
commercialised and accessible only to those who can pay
exorbitant prices for them. Compulsory genetic testing is already
on the cards, laying the basis for a new form of discrimination
in employment, reproductive rights and access to social services.
We can expect an erosion of personal privacy and confidentiality,
and the new wave of social engineering based on a biological
determinist perspective will have many unforeseen consequences
for ordinary people.
The HGP began in 1990 with more than 1100 scientists from the
United States, Britain, Japan, France, China and Germany
cooperating to sequence the entire human genome. It was publicly
funded by a $3 billion grant from the US Department of Energy and
was expected to take until the year 2005; it finished five years
Beginning with blood and sperm cells, the HGP separated out the
23 chromosomes, chopped each into very large fragments of DNA,
matched up the ends of the fragments to put them in order (called
mapping) and then sequenced the nucleotide bases. Within 24
hours, the results of each sequence was placed on a public
database called GenBank, which anyone can access through the
In 1998, a privately owned company, Celera Genomics, led by Craig
Venter, decided it could complete the project faster by throwing
out the mapping stage and cutting up the DNA into overlapping
small fragments, then applying computer-based bio-informatics to
reassemble the sequence in the right order. The company had 300
sequencing machines running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At
the same time, it accessed the publicly funded GenBank to order
and check its sequences.
Celera and the HGP issued a joint media release on June 26
announcing that they had both sequenced the human genome, giving
70,000 to 100,000 different genes (in fact, the actual number of
human genes is unknown).
Celera and the HGP held secret talks last year about
collaboration, but these collapsed amidst mutual recrimination
when Celera refused to release its gene sequences immediately and
fully into the public domain.
Tapping into Celera's full genetic notes will cost corporate
subscribers an estimated $5-15 million a year. In these
circumstances, the current public free access to GenBank is
unlikely to last long. About 35,000 people visit the GenBank site
In 1987, a Harvard biologist was granted the first patent for an
animal, the ``oncomouse'', because it had been genetically
engineered to develop cancer. It was licensed to the DuPont
corporation, which had financed the research.
By 1997, more than 40 animals had been patented, including
rabbits, pigs, turkeys, nematodes and mice. Hundreds of patent
applications for pigs, cows, fish, sheep, monkeys and all cloned
mammals are awaiting approval.
Celera plans to patent 300 genes. Another bio-technology company,
Human Genome Sciences (HGS), has already won more than 100 gene
patents and has filed patent applications for another 7000 genes.
The bio-tech company Incyte has patented 500 full length genes
and has applied for another 7000, many more than any other
Patents have already led to more than 740 genetic tests being on
the market or in the process of development, according to the US
National Institute of Health.
International patent law, designed for applications of the steam
engine in the 19th century, is totally out of date and unable to
handle such complicated issues as the human genome. Furthermore,
in a rational society, there would be no patenting of the human
genome, or the genome of any animal or plant.
Researchers have no idea what many of the genes do, how the
protein works in the cell, its roles in disease, whether the gene
is actually translated into protein, or much of anything about
its activity. About 50,000 human genes have been identified, but
the function of only 10% of these is known.
Around 50-80% of the time, a random human gene with unknown
function will have a sufficiently similar counterpart in a
nematode worm or a fruit fly that the function of that gene can
The genome of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster was sequenced
last March. The researchers found that 60% of the 289 known human
diseases have equivalent genes in flies. And 50% of all of the
14,000 fly proteins show similarities to known mammalian
The baker's yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae was the first organism
with a nucleus to have its genome sequence read, in 1996.
Approximately 38% of its 6050 proteins are similar to all known
mammalian proteins. More than 90% of the mouse proteins
identified so far show similarities to known human proteins.
Since patent standards ask only that researchers take a
reasonable guess at what their new-found gene might do, the
patents are really flimsy because they are relying on the results
of analysis in simple organisms to predict the function in
Public research, private ownership
Nearly 75% of patents taken out by US corporations have been
based on publicly funded research.
Corporate ownership of genes ignores the contribution of
thousands of scientists who have worked on the proteins in other
organisms over decades, and have published their data in the
public arena. Just in the US there are more than 1100
biotechnology companies involved in research.
In medicine and biology, until now, most scientific results have
been produced by academics and postgraduate students in
university laboratories. As a condition of receiving public
funding, the research has generally been publicly available.
The application of patents is now severely hampering research in
many areas. For example, scientists recently found a gene that
could be instrumental in developing new AIDS drugs. However, it
had already been patented by HGS, whose patent claim was not even
specific about how the gene could have a connection to AIDS (they
probably had no idea it could be applied to AIDS).
Last year, some 25% of US laboratories received threatening
letters from lawyers acting for bio-tech companies. They were
ordered to stop carrying out clinical tests on diseases such as
late onset Alzheimer's, breast cancer and many others because the
bio-tech company had an application for a patent.
Many companies are patenting genes that they barely understand
and by locking up data in private databases are restricting
future research to the privileged few who have access to the data
by paid subscription.
The large pharmaceutical companies hope to cash in in a big way:
through designer drugs individualised via genetic testing. It is
expected that the new subject ``pharmacogenomics'' could become an
US$800 million industry by the year 2005.
Most prescription drugs work for only 30-50% of the population.
In extreme cases, a drug that saves one person could be toxic for
someone else. The new drug rezulin, for example, which is used
for type II diabetes, has been linked to more than 60 deaths from
liver toxicity. However, a simple genetic test of potential users
could now determine if the drug would be effective or poisonous.
Knowing the genomic sequence will speed up the search for drugs
that are effective in treating some illnesses. We will therefore
see a flood of new drugs, patented for 20 years.
This work used to be hit and miss, taking years of research by
dozens of scientists in different laboratories. Today it can take
Researchers at Smith, Kline & Beecham, for example, collaborated
with HGS to analyse some genetic material from osteoclast cells
from patients with bone tumours and osteoporosis. HGS sequenced
the sample and did homology searches which revealed that one
sequence in particular, which was over-expressed by the
osteoclast cell, matched those of a previously identified class
of molecules, cathepsins. For Smith, Kline & Beecham that
exercise in bio-informatics yielded a promising drug target in
A German company, Lion Bioscience, has made a US$100 million
agreement with pharmaceutical giant Bayer to build and manage a
bio-informatics capability across all of Bayer's divisions.
In July, a legal battle broke out between British company Oxford
Gene Technologies and the Californian company Affymetrix over the
right to use a new tool in genetic analysis, the DNA micro-array
or ``gene chip''. This technology can tell exactly which genes are
being expressed in any tissue in any individual and will be the
basis for determining individual designer drugs.
For example, comparison of gene expression in drug-treated and
untreated cells may yield new insight into how drugs work, and
how they could be improved. In B-cell lymphoma (cancer of the
white blood cells), in which patients either respond to
chemotherapy or die rapidly, comparison of patterns of expression
in a large 18,000 gene micro-array profile database of lymphoma
patients may provide new ways of identifying those patients who
can respond to treatment. This indicates how much is at stake
financially in the battle over who owns this technology.
Genetic discrimination is already occurring. Healthy people have
been fired from jobs, treated differently in school or barred
from adopting a child because they carried genes that could
potentially result in disease or disability.
Insurance companies survive by discriminating against high-risk
applicants and people with mental retardation have long been
discriminated against in insurance. Now a new type of
discrimination is emerging due to the increasing use of genetic
In a recent case, a six-year-old boy diagnosed with fragile X
syndrome (causing severe mental disability) visited a neurologist
who scribbled ``fragile X'' on a health insurance claim. The
insurance company consequently cancelled coverage for the boy's
entire family of six, even though none of his siblings had been
diagnosed with the condition.
In another case, a pregnant woman whose foetus tested positive
for cystic fibrosis was told that her health insurance company
would cover the cost of an abortion but would not cover the child
under the family's medical policy if the mother decided to carry
the pregnancy to term.
In the US, this discrimination is rampant because medical records
are not private. Information about more than 20 million US
citizens is held in a computerised database called the Medical
Information Bureau. In order to take out life, health or
disability insurance, individuals must consent to the insurance
company searching their MIB records.
One person was denied mortgage insurance because it was
discovered from his MIB file that he had diabetes. In another
case, a woman from Massachusetts learned that her two older
brothers have fragile X syndrome. Her two grown sons were
unaffected, but she could be a carrier. It cost her $450 to have
the test done privately so that the result would not go on her or
her sons' records.
Prevention applied to genetics can imply eugenics; that is,
preventing births among individuals who may pass on genetic
diseases. The eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1940s advocated
that people with mental retardation be involuntarily sterilised,
along with others they considered ``less desirable'', such as
Gypsies, Australian Aborigines and the Inuit people of North
In general, the transmission of genetic disorders creates no
threat to society. However, under capitalism, the drive to cut
public spending on health care may result in governments enacting
legal limitations on the reproductive rights of people who are
carriers of genetic diseases.
Of course, all of this leaves the Third World totally out of the
picture. The overwhelming majority of people in the
underdeveloped countries are unable to afford the expensive
technologies, drug treatments or testing associated with genetic
All people have a basic human right to share in the results of
research which can improve people's health and well-being. Yet,
while a full understanding of the human genome will likely be
achieved over the next few decades as the code is fully
interpreted, the consequences of this profound leap in scientific
knowledge will be, for the mass of humanity, either adverse or
simply nil -- unless the system within which this knowledge is
being applied is fundamentally changed to give priority to
meeting human needs.
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