Since the very first farmer chose to breed a specific cow with a specific bull because of each animal’s traits, the resulting offspring has automatically belonged to the farmer. Indeed, ownership of the genetics of prime breeding stock has always been coupled with the ownership of those animals. But genetic ownership could come under serious question if companies can patent naturally occurring DNA segments in cattle. And that has already happened in Australia.
That’s an interesting development considering the issue of patenting a naturally occurring DNA segment in humans has been settled in several countries. Given the underlying arguments, one would expect the thinking to extend to all such patents.
The human costs in gene patents
Patenting naturally occurring genes in humans is generally viewed as a profit-grabbing move that obstructs many other existing efforts and rights, ranging from national interests to individual property rights and even life-saving healthcare.
In Canada, PACEomics led the legal case that led to a ground-breaking settlement which ensures Canadian patients have access to affordable and immediate genetic testing, despite existing patents that could, and once did, block or slow access and jack up costs.
“If Canada and Canadians are to benefit from the potential of Personalized Medicine, then hospitals and governments need tools to counter the negative effects of patents in this area. The goal of the litigation was to provide such a tool,” said researcher Richard Gold, associate dean at McGill University’s Faculty of Law, in a brief in this year’s GenomeAlberta annual report.
“The win means that gene patents need no longer prevent hospitals and governments from offering genetic tests or informing patients of all results arising from a genetic test.”
As a result of the settlement, Gold went on to say, one Canadian hospital would save $200,000 on just one genetic test, the Long QT test.
“Multiply this by the number of provinces and territories and all genes that may be subject to patents now and in the future, and the savings are very large,” said Gold.
So, given all that was discovered, understood and won in that case and many other cases and investigations in countries all over the world, why is patenting naturally occurring gene segments still a consideration, much less an actual thing?
Australia’s livestock genetics giveaway
While Australia too saw the problem with gene patents in the human sphere, it didn’t extend protections to other living organisms that also affect human lives. In other words, gene patenting in non-human organisms appeared to them to be separate rather than related issues. Well, that’s my guess anyway. Perhaps it was just an oversight by an overwhelmed and overworked bureaucrat.
However it happened, according to a Beef Central report, the Australian Patent Office did grant an Australian patent for naturally occurring cattle DNA segments to foreign-based Cargill USA/Branhaven LLC.
The resulting uproar was almost immediate. Senator O’Sullivan said, according to that same Beef Central report, that he and many others are “extremely uncomfortable with the idea that a foreign company can effectively claim ownership over naturally-occurring genetics in this country.”
I think it’s a safe bet that would be the reaction in any country.
Imagine the potential legal quagmire and added costs when you suddenly must check each calf’s DNA to discover whether you lost to genetic patents in what has essentially become an expensive game of breeding roulette.
Hard lessons learned
Well that scenario has certainly occurred to many in Australia. Thus an inquiry will be put before the Senate to question whether the Patent Office did its due diligence (essentially whether the Australian government can retract the patent) and whether future patent applications should be subjected to a national interest test.
We’ll have to wait and see how, and if, Australia can get itself out of this mess. And, whether it makes an even bigger regulatory mess trying to ensure it doesn’t repeat gene patent mistakes.
Meanwhile, it is vitally important that other countries learn from Australia’s misstep.
The assumption should not be made that regulations banning the patenting of naturally-occurring gene segments in humans extends to other organisms. Far too often it does not.
Every precaution should be taken to ensure that these types of patents are never granted for ANY organism in any country, as one can potentially affect all countries where agreements exist to mutually honor intellectual property.
To understand the gene patent controversy and issues better, watch the video below.
“We need to bring back a little common sense into this debate to make sure that naturally-occurring genes, which should be the property of everyone, do not become the ownership of a handful of foreign businesses,” said Australia’s Senator O’Sullivan.