AHB 101:  BIOTECH PATENTING

Two legal developments in 1980 opened the door to the patenting and commodification of human biology.  The U.S. Supreme Court decision Diamond v. Chakrabarty, established the principle that bioengineered life could be patented. To achieve this ruling, the court declared that living entities could be considered “compositions of matter.”   In the same year, Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act.  This law permits universities and their researchers to privately patent innovations funded by public grants.  Creations and any health applications derived from them are removed from the public domain and from free access.

Today, the list of patentable living organisms and biomaterial include not only “lower” life forms, plants, and animals, but human genes and cells as well.  The techniques used to create and develop living entities also are patentable.  

These developments dramatically altered the social landscape in which science is conducted and stimulated further important social developments.  These changes include the intensification of the commodification and commercialization of life, and the transformation of scientific researchers into science entrepreneurs.  Science-entrepreneurs take money from companies that seek to capitalize on biotechnological innovation by directing research, and they start up their own biotech companies.  This behavior is characterized by a preoccupation with applied over “basic” science, advertising to create consumer demand, and a subordination of aims and agendas to the “bottom line” of stocks, shares, and profit.

 

RECOMMENDED READING

 

Andrews, Lori B. "Genes and Patent Policy: Rethinking Intellectual Property Rights"

Crichton, Michael. “Who Owns Your Genes: Patenting Life”

International Center for Technology Assessment, “Patent Watch”

 

AHB QUERY:  What role do you think biotech patenting plays in driving the search for applications for new genetic technologies?  

Should scientific inquiry be driven so entirely by how it can translate into practical applications?  Why/why not?   

What are some implications of seeking primarily high-tech solutions to social needs?

Consider the case of "synthetic biology."  Discuss on Facebook