Wretches and Genes: We Come For You

The ownership and exploitation of human genes

Ken Cates, Staff Writer 

Reagan’s Cult and Crichton’s Nightmare

For those who identify themselves as part of Generation Y, I have always wondered how much they know about growing up alongside the birth of corporate America? It was a key era in history that marked the infancy of the winner-takes-all system characterized by the massive income inequality between the top 1% and everyone else. It was a system nourished under the tender care of the administration of Ronald Reagan and the believers of his magic words: Greed Is Good.

Despite the rhetoric of competition and free market capitalism, over the last 3 decades markets have become anything but free. Banks and corporations have become too big to fail, abandoning the less affluent as they continue to expand their profits through commercializing and eliminating what we used to consider as the public sphere.  Some have also achieved the convenience of being too big to jail, as was the case for HSBC and its laundering of cartel drug money. Various industries including the media (run by Newscorp, Time Warner, GE, etc.) and energy sectors (BP, Halliburton, etc.), are now characterized by a handful of megafirms calling the shots. Indeed, the revolving door relationship between corporate, government, and academia has accelerated like never before, stifling innovation as well as diversity in not just business but public discourse as a whole.

When the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 against the Salt Lake City based Myriad Genetics and its patent claims for the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes, the first thing that crossed my mind was the warning against gene patents issued by the late Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and creator of the TV series ER. His thriller Next is a comprehensive and well-researched assault on the cutthroat business practices of biotechnology firms, politicians, and universities claiming and hoarding ownership on human genes and exploiting the gene holders by all means possible. One story line includes a tac-team of repo men abducting a little girl for the rare genes in her body, which the lawyer of the team’s employer phrased the operation as collecting what is rightfully his boss’s “property.”

In other words, the fear of our genes being parted from our body like the houses of homeowners evicted by the police and the megabanks during the 2008 financial crisis, is all too relevant in the metastasizing of corporate greed in the bosom of our daily lives. This was a job preformed by the bank-employed Yakuza in the late 1980s and the early 1990s in the case of Japan.

But does the relevancy of such fears make it accurate as well as justifiable? While I have unending respect for Crichton, as a writer I am obligated to the truth and the separation of fact and fiction. So starting from the Myriad ruling, I would like to dive into the world of gene patents and explore how far the firms and research institutes actually embody the cult of greed. Moreover, I would also like to explore if Gen Y entrepreneurs can play a role in pushing corporate back from our bodies and our lives, rather than becoming the next Goldman Sachs, Newscorp or Halliburton.

Are Human Genes Patentable?

This was the question that the U.S. Supreme Court faced in the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, where the 9 justices unanimously agreed that naturally occurring genes are a product of nature and cannot be patented. As the court invalidated Myriad’s claims based on the isolation of the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes, the key argument was that the mere isolation of human genes in the lab does not count as a novelty invention.

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