In Australia, Your D.N.A. Can Now Be Privatized

Genetic patents incentivize research, but they also restrict medical access.

Illustration by Matt Chase

Patent protection—that holy designation of intellectual property rights for inventors of novel and non-obvious gadgets, doo-hickeys, and thingamabobs—now extends in Australia to any genetic material extracted from the human body, according to a federal court ruling earlier this month. The decision, which upholds a controversial ruling from last February, officially ushers in an era of genetic privatization that many Australians worry affords companies a dangerous level of exclusive control over natural gene sequences. Awarding sole ownership of these sequences threatens the general public’s ability to take advantage of any medical innovations the patents may produce.

A portion of the gene sequence BRCA1

The case revolves around a gene mutation known as BRCA1, which, when detected in individuals, is used to diagnose hereditary breast and ovarian cancers. Only one company in Australia, the one that owns the rights to the gene, may conduct these tests, which take weeks to generate results, have a sizable margin for error, and cost upwards of $4,000 dollars. Advocates say this right to exclusive use is a necessary incentive to fund the research required to extract and isolate such genetic material, but many critics believe this restricts the development of cures for genetically associated diseases, and fundamentally disagree that any naturally occurring gene should even classify as an invention. “This is a bit like patenting oxygen,” a patent lawyer told Guardian Australia.

Australia isn’t the only country struggling with this ethical and scientific dilemma. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the opposite, claiming that isolated DNA is a “product of nature and not patent eligible.” This language harkens back to 1889, to when the U.S. Commissioner of Patents’ first rejected a biological patent application, for a fiber found in pine tree needles, which the commissioner called an “unreasonable and impossible” proposal, as ludicrous as attempting to patent “any new gem or jewel in the earth.” Meanwhile, the European Patent Organisation still allows the patenting of natural biological products if they are “isolated from [their] natural environment or produced by means of a technical process,” and Japan, in an utterly reasonable compromise, allows biotechnological patents as long as they are “industrially applicable,” but not for medical activity like diagnosis, therapy, or surgery.

But the question extends far beyond breast cancer. Until the U.S. ruling last June, America’s particularly aggressive patent office had issued between 3,000 and 5,000 patents on human genes and 47,000 more on inventions involving genetic material. Scientists have isolated genes associated with increased risk of cystic fibrosis, heart arrhythmias, hemochromatosis, and more. Patents have also been issued for hormones, vitamins, and even, since 1980, genetically modified organisms, the first of which was controversially granted to a General Electric engineer for a genetically modified bacterium that could break down crude oil to help clean up oil spills.

And yet, the idea of owning real human DNA still doesn’t sit quite right with the public. In Australia, the company exclusively licensed to conduct breast and ovarian cancer tests stopped enforcing its patent rights against pathology and cancer centers years ago after intense public backlash, blunting the blow of this month’s court decision. Even Myriad Genetics, the company that owns the BRCA1 patent, after the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year, admitted (however cynically) to understanding the vital crux of this debate: medical progress. “The battle that really matters isn’t in court,” they said. “It’s the one against cancer.”

We agree.

via Douglas Muth / Flickr

Sin City is doing something good for its less fortunate citizens as well as those who've broken the law this month. The city of Las Vegas, Nevada will drop any parking ticket fines for those who make a donation to a local food bank.

A parking ticket can cost up to $100 in Las Vegas but the whole thing can be forgiven by bringing in non-perishable food items of equal or greater value to the Parking Services Offices at 500 S. Main Street through December 16.

The program is designed to help the less fortunate during the holidays.

Keep Reading Show less

For more than 20 years. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has served the citizens of Maine in the U.S. Senate. For most of that time, she has enjoyed a hard-fought reputation as a moderate Republican who methodically builds bridges and consensus in an era of political polarization. To millions of political observers, she exemplified the best of post-partisan leadership, finding a "third way" through the static of ideological tribalism.

However, all of that has changed since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Voters in Maine, particularly those who lean left, have run out of patience with Collins and her seeming refusal to stand up to Trump. That frustration peaked with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Keep Reading Show less
via / Flickr and Dimitri Rodriguez / Flickr

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign looks to be getting a huge big shot in the arm after it's faced some difficulties over the past few weeks.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading voice in the Democratic parties progressive, Democratic Socialist wing, is expected to endorse Sanders' campaign at the "Bernie's Back" rally in Queens, New York this Saturday.

Fellow member of "the Squad," Ilhan Omar, endorsed him on Wednesday.

Keep Reading Show less
Photo by HAL9001 on Unsplash

The U.K. is trying to reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, but aviation may become the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.K. by that same year. A new study commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and conducted at the Imperial College London says that in order for the U.K. to reach its target, aviation can only see a 25% increase, and they've got a very specific recommendation on how to fix it: Curb frequent flyer programs.

Currently, air travel accounts for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, however that number is projected to increase for several reasons. There's a growing demand for air travel, yet it's harder to decarbonize aviation. Electric cars are becoming more common. Electric planes, not so much. If things keep on going the way they are, flights in the U.K. should increase by 50%.

Nearly every airline in the world has a frequent flyer program. The programs offer perks, including free flights, if customers get a certain amount of points. According to the study, 70% of all flights from the U.K. are taken by 15% of the population, with many people taking additional (and arguably unnecessary) flights to "maintain their privileged traveler status."

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet