Patenting the "Breast Cancer gene"

By Razib Khan | May 15, 2009 9:02 pm

Rebecca Skloot has a piece up in Double X, Slate’s new webzine, on the controversy around Myriad Genetics.

  • Eric Johnson

    > Though patent law says “products of nature” can’t be patented, genes have long qualified because they’re “isolated from their natural state and purified.”
    See, this is what I don’t get. If you read wiki on intellectual property, you see consequentialist rationales, not deontologic ones. In other words, results are all that matters for justifying IP — specifically, benefits to the public are the sole ultimate rationale. A “natural right” to an IP monopoly lasting XYZ years is not something I’ve ever seen claimed. My point is, you don’t have to be a consequentialist in general to be a consequentialist on IP.
    So, then, why this lofty philosophical stuff about “natural products” being suitable for IP monopolies only if “isolated from their natural state and purified” — which is of a purely deontologic character? I’m inclined to think gene patents are bad for society on net (at least with regard to common variants); at least, they probably are now, even if they weren’t necessarily bad in the past when gene-phenotype correlations were much harder to discover than they are now. Why should anything else, besdes such pracgmatic considerations, matter?
    So, why not just stop granting new patents on common variants? I’m not sure what we should do about existing ones, since obviously any retroactive confiscation of any IP could have a chilling effect throughout all R&D in every field.
    (Maybe that’s related to why law people always seem to come up with deontologic rationales ex post facto for making changes that at bottom don’t seem very deontologically motivated. Overturn a bunch of patents for confessedly practical reasons, and what does that tell people – “hey, we are just gonna grab your stuff; it’s practical for the public good and, what the heck, I’ll just come out and say it, it also tallies with public opinion.” Ahem, no. Much better to say “decades of learned disputations and ruminations have equipped us to determine that true justice demands doing yada yada — and thank that god we, and with us all decent people, have at last understood the transcendent error of doing XYZ.” Likewise gay marriage in California as ruled on recently by the state supreme court: “we have just discovered a new eternal truth of human rights — oddly enough, right around the time it became favored by California public opinion and a near-toss-up as far as national opinion goes.”


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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