May 6, 2002
Biotechnology aims in agriculture strive to improve the nutrient value of foods such as rice, toughen them up for transport from field to market, and develop plants that emit their own pesticide and have increased crop yields. The most prominent promises of human genomics research include diagnosing, preventing and curing disease in humans.
The sequencing of the human genome was a huge endeavor, a race 'won' by the privately held Celera Genomics against the government-funded Human Genome Project (HGP). It should come as no surprise that the human genome that was sequenced belonged to none other than Celera's founder, Craig Venter, who broke off from the HGP to start Celera. Early predictions in the process estimated that humans were comprised of up to 100,000 genes. Many were humbled to learn that our highly developed organism is comprised of a mere 30 to 40,000 -- fewer than the 43 to 63,000 in rice!
But whether it is corn or rice or humans whose genes are being identified and potentially manipulated or modified, the topic is not without controversy, one of the basics of which is the patenting of genes.
Life forms were not considered patentable until 1980, when the Supreme Court upheld the patent of a bacteria that was modified to create an oil-dissolving microbe, because the microbe did not otherwise exist in nature (Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 1980). Since then, thousands of patents on transgenic organisms, genes and gene fragments have been granted. Many researchers criticize the practice of patenting genes or gene fragments without even the understanding of their function or a proposal for their use. The Human Genome Organization, referred to as the "United Nations" for genomics, states that "[i]t would be ironic and unfortunate if the patent system were to reward the routine while discouraging the innovative. Yet that could be the result of offering broad patent rights to those who undertake massive but routine sequencing efforts -- whether for ESTs [gene fragments] or for full genes -- while granting more limited rights or no rights to those who make the far more difficult and significant discoveries of underlying biological functions." Although the human genome sequence data is publicly available, many companies such as Celera have interpreted the data, patented thousands of sequences, in turn selling subscriptions to research and biotech institutions for access.
The original aim of mapping the human genome was to develop a broader understanding of our biology, and to develop diagnostic tests and new therapies for human disease. According to current estimates, it takes ten to fifteen years and over $800 million to develop and market a new drug. The current patent system is yet another barrier to innovative research with data from the human genome.
In April, two research teams announced the sequencing of two strains of rice, an effort that was hailed as critical to understanding and improving nutritional content and crop yield of rice and other cereals, and save time and guesswork for plant breeders. According to Donald Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief of Science, who published the rice genome research, "More people depend on -- and consume -- calories from rice than from any other crop, and when you add in wheat and maize, this really is a major contribution to world health." "I think over the next ten to twenty years our publishing of the rice genome is going to have a greater impact on global human health than our publishing of the human genome last year. We haven't seen anything yet in the way of a direct impact on human health from the human genome." Rice sequencing has been lead by, among others, the biotechnology companies Syngenta and Monsanto.
There are hundreds of patents on rice, and according to a report by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Joe Cummins, "The rice genome is in many respects much more significant than the human genome, because the potential to use (and hence abuse) it is much greater." "...if the present intellectual property rights regime were to continue, poor farmers may be prevented from using their own varieties, let alone generating new varieties or saving and exchanging rice seeds."
Whether for the development of new and innovative therapies for human disease, or the production of abundant and nutrient rich foods, the promise of genomics to improve the human condition may turn out to be an empty promise but for the minority of the wealthy and developed countries of the world.
In 2000, a British woman submitted a patent application on herself, to protect herself from unauthorized exploitation. It's not a far-fetched leap of reasoning.
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Human Genome Project Information on Genetics and Patenting
The Human Genome Organization: Statement on the Patenting of DNA Sequences
Two Groups Sequence Rice, Edward R. Winstead, Genome News Network, April 5, 2002
Significance of the Rice Genome, Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Joe Cummins, Institute of Science in Society
Let 'em Eat Kale, by Jan Baughman (November 1999)
Jan Baughman is a scientist in the Biotech Industry. When Jan does not travel around the world on behalf of the company where she manages a clinical research department, she spends most of her time devouring books like candies and relaxing over the preparation of the finest recipes in Northern California. She started writing at a very young age when she found this mode of expression easier than having to answer the perpetually boring and conservative chit-chat around her. Jan's sense of observation is directly related to her sense of humor. She is a founding member and co-editor of Swans, and brings to the site wit and a lightness of being.
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