Genetics & Biotechnology: DNA in the Marketplace

PRODUCERS: Loretta Williams

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New & Noteworthy, 2007
by Jennifer Jongsma

In Genetics & Biotechnology: DNA in the Marketplace, The DNA Files looked at the shifting boundaries between independent science and funding. In 1998, we heard from scientists who were translating research into products and trying to answer the questions that arise about ownership, academic freedom, and public trust in science. Biotechnology is an increasingly global effort, with increasing levels of controversy as well.

The Human Genome Project was an international cooperative effort, with 20 sequencing centers in six countries participating. The human genome was officially sequenced in 2003. Within two years, according to one 2005 study, one-fifth of the known human DNA sequences had been patented by universities, government organizations, or private biotechnology companies. Even using the most conservative number of total human genes, this equals over 4,000 gene and partial gene patents. Genes associated with disease, including BRCA1 (breast cancer), PIK3R5 (diabetes), and LEPR (obesity), are more often patented than others. One of the most controversial gene patents involves Myriad Genetics, Inc., which legally owns two DNA sequences associated with increased risk of developing breast cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2. As a result, they are effectively the only legal source for BRCA testing in Europe and North America. Patients wanting to test for breast cancer susceptibility must send their sample to Myriad's labs. All tests for BRCA1 are run through Myriad's labs, so even though a patient can order the test from another company, the sample ends up at Myriad in the end.

Opponents to gene patenting claim that human gene patenting creates monopolies and hinders research. U.S. patent applications are confidential until a patent is issued, and so far, over three million genome-related patent applications have been filed. Determining which sequences are the subject of patent applications is impossible, leaving those who use sequences from public databases subject to future lawsuits. Gene patents are also an issue in agriculture. Farmers whose crops are contaminated by wind-blown pollen from genetically modified crops have faced heavy fees and lawsuits from the corporations that own the modified genes.

There is little dispute that academic-corporate partnerships have become vital to the multibillion-dollar biotechnology business that is fueling the genetic revolution. The "technology transfer" of discoveries made in academic areas to the commercial sector continues to pay off for both parties. In one such relationship, British Petroleum is funding UC-Berkeley, the University of Illinois, and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to create the Energy Biosciences Institute. In the $500 million, 10-year deal, BP researchers will work alongside university and public agency scientists and share in decision-making about their work. The oil company would co-own original patents and have exclusive license to others. Regardless of the benefits of such partnerships, the objectives of for-profit corporations and universities remain different and continue to raise many of the same questions The DNA Files addressed in 1998.

Original Program Description, 1998

This program is all about control: the control of genetic research, the control of our own genes, and the control of the very personal information those genes contain. The answers aren't clear-cut, and, many would argue, the ethics surrounding the issues are sometimes blurred as well.

A case study of organ transplant research focuses on partnerships between universities and private biotech ventures. You'll learn how one company exploring the promise of using pig organs for transplantation into humans helps universities to recruit top scientists by funding state-of-the-art labs at teaching hospitals. Can corporate culture and academia work hand-in-hand? Can university researchers whose projects rely on corporate funding remain objective? Can we trust that the results of such projects are in the public's best interest?

Biotechnology companies want not only to study genes, but to patent them. You'll hear experts debate the wisdom of human gene patenting — said to be the holy grail of the biotech business. Companies working on development of genetically based medicines claim that patenting is necessary to protect their very substantial research investments. And in fact, it was a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision paving the way for patents on human genes that allowed the biotech business to flourish in the United States. But at what point do we cross the line from patenting genes to patenting human life forms? Is crossing that line OK?

Once we've determined who controls a gene, how do we determine control of the information it contains? As we'll hear, currently there is no federal legislation to protect against genetic discrimination in employment and nothing to keep information from being shared among medical databanks. The state of Oregon has already taken a stand on the issue, with a law that declares an individual's genome to be the individual's own personal property. The law raises yet more questions: when, for example, might personal property and individual ownership run counter to the public good? Listen to the mixed reviews that the Oregon law gets from legislators, scientists, and health care professionals.

Control. Ethics. Privacy. Profit. They're the making of many a good plot line. The account of commercialization of our genes contains all these elements, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. Listen in and get the story.