End the sale of university research for corporate use

Mary Boland
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
What do we really want?

“The shocking corporate takeover of life itself, and the consequences for your health and our medical future.”

That is the subtitle of “Deadly Monopolies,” a new book by Harriet Washington, a distinguished author and fellow in medical ethics at the Harvard Medical School.

She describes corporate control of a medical industrial complex that is severely restricting medical research and creation of badly needed new cures. And she demonstrates how it is distorting medical research and medication development, and ending the independence and objectivity of both university research and treatment evaluations in medical journals.

It all began in 1980 with two developments, one judicial and one legislative.

The legislative was the controversial Bayh-Dole Act, which permitted universities to sell patents to for-profit corporations on discoveries resulting from taxpayer-funded research.

Over the past 30 years, the result has been that corporate money has had an unholy influence on university research, resulting in an excessive attention to the kind of research that for-profit corporations are interested in buying.

Corporations are not very interested in rarer but deadly diseases or horrible Third World afflictions. They are much more interested in lifestyle matters that can result in highly profitable blockbusters such as Viagra.

The other, and even worse, development was the controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Chakrabarty v. Diamond that approved Dr. Chakrabarty’s patent of a bacterium genetically engineered to eat oil.

The decision was controversial because products of nature had never before been considered patentable, altered or not. Patents are limited to products that are novel, manufactured by the hand of man, and non-obvious not only to laymen but to skilled practitioners of relevant arts and sciences.

The Chakrabarty decision was based on the thin argument that genetically manipulating a bacterium made it a product of human manufacture.

Following that decision, the U.S. Patent Office, as much captured by corporate interests as other government agencies, ran amok. It granted patents on genetically modified plants and animals as well as human cells and tissues, disease genes and the like.

The results over the past 30 years have been to create no important new cures or treatments, but a “patent thicket” that stymies research terribly. Corporations rush to patent anything and everything so they can charge high licensing and royalty fees to anyone wishing to do research using the patented materials.

Furthermore, since it is much cheaper to develop genetic tests than to develop disease cures, corporations base their efforts on developing and marketing, at high costs, tests based on their patents. And they have protected their profits by refusing to license at any price use of their patented materials by foundations or others trying to develop more accurate, cheaper tests or treatments.

More accurate and cheaper tests are available in European nations that ban gene patenting.

Now, efforts are under way to remedy the situation. Legislation to reverse the Birch-Bayh Act and ban universities from selling taxpayer-funded research to for-profit corporations has been introduced in Congress. A court case challenging the patenting of products of nature, altered or no, is on its way to the Supreme Court.

A Ms. Genae Girard sued Myriad Genetics Corp. after discovering that more accurate genetic tests than Myriad’s, which would better direct her breast cancer treatment, are unavailable to her in the U.S. because of Myriad’s aggressive defense of its patents on breast and ovarian cancer genes.

A federal district court judge dismissed as without merit the argument that isolating a gene makes it no longer a product of nature, and he invalidated a number of Myriad’s patents.

The case is now on its way to the Supreme Court, and Ms. Girard has been joined in her suit by a group representing 100,000 pathologists, a varied collection of genetic researchers, other cancer patients, medical activists, and the American Civil Liberties Union. They are all calling for an end to gene patents.

They argue that not only is a gene still a product of nature, whether isolated or manipulated or not, but that the processes involved no longer meet the non-obvious standard as they are well known to many, many relevant practitioners. It is to be hoped they will prevail.

“What Do We Really Want?” appears on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. Mary Boland is a retired teacher and journalist, a proud grandmother, and a longtime resident of Carbondale. Follow her on twitter@grannyboland.

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