Time and again, on these pages, I have opined about the ills of our society. As often as not, that has boiled down to money, specifically corporate profit. We seem to have a established habit of opting for the choice that is healthier for the business bottom line than the human race in general.
Today, the Supreme Court will be hearing a case that would appear to put a magnifying glass on this trend. A case that could well be a benchmark on where we go as a species. The question boils down to this, should recouping a businesses efforts and expenses toward a medical breakthrough be more important than making said breakthrough generally available so that the benefits can be taken advantage of to save more lives.
What they will be debating in front of the court will be whether extracting part of a human DNA strand constitutes “invention” and therefore is protected by patent law, or if it is closer to “effort” which is great, but not subject to patent protection. Those arguing in defense of the patent will tell the judges that what they are doing with the strand segments is new and discernibly different than what occurs in nature (you can’t patent an act or state of nature). Those arguing against will say that, while the company’s work was good and certainly pain-staking and expensive… it does not fundamentally change the nature of the DNA components being tested and therefore is ineligible for patent protection.
At first I thought this was a horrible case of greed vs. saving lives. However upon reflection I realize it is beyond silly to assume that the other companies wanting to use these markers are doing so for humanitarian reasons… their bottom line stands to benefit significantly from this as well, which is likely their primary motivation for being in court.
However, at the end of the day, the Supreme Court is either going make a ruling that says one company gets to make as much money off of this advancement (toward paying off all of the research they did to get to this point), or multiple companies are going to be able to use this technology/science to save lives. And if they take the former path rather than the latter, this may be a bit of a tipping point for me (and not the good kind). I feel myself starting to give up, to lose hope… and if the Supreme Court agrees that the profit margins of a company are more important than the lives of those who might benefit from advances in gene sequencing… I’m not sure that my decent will be easily put in check down the road.
We have (d?)evolved from an age when Dr Salk, when asked about patenting his Polio vaccine said “There is no patent … could you patent the sun?” to an era where Myriad Genetics wants to own (in the form of a patent) part of the human genome. Sometimes the old ways are better… and certainly more honorable.