Partial Transcript: Episode 51: (Patents)

Nick: The Supreme Court is hearing opening arguments about patenting breast cancer genes.

Andrew: They also had discussion between the judges.

Virginia: Myriad Genetics discovered two genes highly associated with breast cancer.  They patented the discovery and have 20 years of protection.  A group of researchers sued.

Andrew: As they should.  I understand that they put work into it, but they didn’t create these genes.  They discovered them.  If I discovered a plant, that doesn’t mean that I own that plant.  I couldn’t sue Nick for patent infringement because he has the same plant in his yard.

Nick: The judges made a good argument, which is: I you discovered the liver, could you say that you own everyone’s liver?

Virginia: The thing I don’t understand is this: Discoverers who find land keep their claim.  Isn’t that similar?

Andrew: That’s land.  It’s not reproducible.

Virginia: Fair enough.

Andrew: If Nick and I are farmers, and I find a plant, I can’t patent that.

Virginia: What about selective breeding?

Nick: Let’s stick with the topic at hand.  These aren’t changed.  These are just markers.

Andrew: Let’s say that we’re both growing apples, and one day I get blue apples.   They’re delicious.  I decide to patent the plant.  Then the same mutation happens in Nick’s orchard.  Can I now tell Nick that he owes me usage fees?

Nick: That’s different.  You’re talking gene mutation.  This is a marker.  This is more like saying that we can test a baby and predict cancer.

Andrew: They can patent the process of testing.

Nick: They didn’t.  It was just the gene that they discovered.

Andrew: If you look at patent law, you’re not supposed to patent naturally-occurring things.

Nick: But, we’ve been releasing patents on these things.

Andrew: I totally understand that if we don’t have a way to lock it down, companies can’t make money on it.

Nick: And they think that will kill investment in genetic research.

Andrew: I don’t think that’s necessarily true.  I see where they’re coming from.  I don’t necessarily agree.  It’s much worse for humanity as a whole to start patenting our own genes.

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