June 17, 2013 | 1
Although I mostly think about conservation, ecology and nature, I have a soft spot for medicine and, in particular, genetics. It’s partly due to my own family history and experience, partly my interest in how people think about medicine and death, and partly my 6-month internship at Nature Medicine, which began more than two years ago this month.
So when Arikia Millikan, editor of LadyBits–a space for “tech-savvy women creating the content we want to consume”–asked me to write my own take on the recent Supreme Court case about gene patenting, I had to give it a go. I didn’t write about incentivizing innovation, technical details, or loopholes. I just wrote about how the decision that genes can not be patented will affect our healthcare. And, in particular, I thought about how it should create a more open, positive conversation about genetics and medicine, and the choices it will allow us in the future.
Today, genes are part of our cultural vocabulary and sequencing has becoming increasingly cheap. But in the late 1980s and 1990s, there was a global race among genetic researchers to hunt down the breast cancer-causing genes passed down through families. Genetic tools were rudimentary and picking out the location of a gene over the entire human genome was painstaking work. But Myriad researchers managed to pinpoint BRCA1—a mere 0.0025% of the length of the human genome—and snip the DNA segment out.
At the time, that may have seemed like a novel invention in a world that didn’t understand genetics. It seemed like something that the hardworking researchers should be able to profit from—such as the $3,000-$4,000 genetic test that has built Myriad’s empire of hundreds of millions of dollars.
But we think about genes differently now. We’re getting close to being able to sequence an entire human genome for a measly $1,000—40,000 times longer than the little BRCA1 gene. The tools for sequencing are becoming ubiquitous. As you read this, biohackers in Brooklyn warehouses are trying their hand at synthetic biology, copying DNA sequences and piecing them together to make something new. In this world, can a company really claim a smidge of DNA as their intellectual property?
Image: Flickr user Marazmova
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