There is Another Human Side to Gene Patenting

We monitor the many technical blogs which do a fabulous job of covering the Association of Molecular Pathology v. U.S.  Patent and Trademark Office (Myriad) case.  The arguments in that case are well-stated, from both sides.  For those interested, these arguments have been made before, not in legalese, but nonetheless compelling in seminars and meetings, in Johns Hopkins ethics convocations, and in living rooms in America and Europe.

Rebecca Skloot has indirectly but thoroughly researched the evolution of gene patenting through her gripping expose' of the origins and products of the HeLa cell line, emphasis on "origins" (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). Cancer cells were cut from Henrietta Lacks months before she died in 1951.  These cells went on to be the world's first immortal cells, sold, labeled, packaged, and shipped to experimental laboratories worldwide. These cells resulted in some of the most important medical advances in the past 50 years, from the polio vaccine to the HPV vaccine, from chemotherapy to gene mapping.

Certainly Henrietta knew nothing of what was to happen with her cells, nor was her family informed. The juxtaposition of the rapid commercialization of the cell line and the abject poverty and ignorance (the family did not find out what was happening until 1976) is almost too much for a reader to grasp. The pathos that is the family's story is gripping, by itself, and a reason to read; however, Ms. Skloot's research, fully documented in an extensive bibliography, is more than instructive, incorporating contextual discussions of John Moore's unsuccessful dispute with Dr. David Golde and UCLA (Mo-cell patent is No. 4,438,032), and the seminal case, in 1980, when the Supreme Court ruled (Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303) Ananda Chakrabarty's use of "human ingenuity" to alter bacteria to consume oil (No. 4,259,444) made patenting of biologicals permissable.

Skloot's chronology is helpful. The organized references to relevant scientific research is valuable and has shelf-life. There is little doubt about the immense medical progress made through the rapid spread of the HeLa cells throughout the scientific community, and there is considerable room to argue that the fact that Johns Hopkins did NOT attempt to patent the cell line accelerated the development of life-saving discoveries. Still, the snapshot of forgotten humanity left in the wake of HeLa tissue commercialization is sobering.