A Change in Philosophy

In 1955, when Jonas Salk was being interviewed by Edward R. Murrow regarding his polio vaccine, the newsman asked the scientist who it was that owned the patent to the vaccine. Salk replied: "Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?" [source: Darnovsky and Reynolds]. Judging by recent activity in the field, the idea that a vaccine not be patented would seem outrageous to many researchers today.

Ethical, Social and Economic Challenges

Outside of the courtroom, the debate over gene patents is still a lively one.

Proponents of gene patents argue that the system stimulates research, as scientists can retain the rights and credit for their work rather than having the results of years in the lab simply stolen by another company once findings are published. The retention of rights, they say, also provides research companies a financial incentive to explore genetic materials, as they can be assured a profit for at least 20 years from their efforts. Without gene patents, proponents argue, very little genetic research would ever take place.

They also maintain that the patenting system prevents duplication of efforts across research institutes. Once facility A has patented a finding, it becomes public knowledge and facility B does not need to head down the same research path. This component of transparency, which is integral to the patenting process, also eliminates secrecy and provides scientists access to each other's findings in a way that can propel research further, according to supporters of the gene patenting process.

The primary argument used by opponents of gene patenting is that the genetic material inside our bodies belongs to humankind, not a lab, and that the regulation prohibiting the patenting of "products of nature" certainly applies in this case. They also assert that once one lab owns a patent on a particular gene or sequence of genes, research at other labs will be hampered because of the fees that must be paid to the patent holder for use of their work in related research areas. The American Medical Association (AMA) is on this side of the issue, stating that they oppose gene patenting because "it has the potential to inhibit access to genetic testing for patients and hinder research on genetic disease" [source: AMA].

The financial component to gene patenting also has implications for the consumer. If one and only one company is allowed to patent a particular test or treatment, they effectively own a monopoly for the 20-year-term of the patent and can charge whatever they like for it. What's perhaps even more troubling is the idea that without any competition in the marketplace, a genetic patent holder wouldn't necessarily feel the need to improve their product or respond to consumer feedback.

Perhaps the only thing that is clear on this issue is that just like the human body itself, the world of gene patenting is extraordinarily complicated and the debates and legal challenges it inspires are likely to continue for years to come.