What is BRCA1? How Companies Are Patenting Your Genetic Code

Ever since Frederic Miescher first isolated DNA in 1869, scientists have been steadily making greater progress into unlocking the secrets of our genetic code one nucleic acid at a time. With increased progress comes incredible potential for both progress and misanthropy. For instance, company Myriad Genetics caused international headlines when it applied to patent two breast genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2).

The implications are troubling. Every single person on the planet has the BRAC1 and BRAC2 genes. Myriad Genetics did not invent the genes; it has only patented research pertaining to them. Patents are, in theory, relating to a process or invention. This is important, as the patent does not appear related to the test Myriad Genetics developed. Rather Myriad has made the unprecedented move of patenting the actual genes themselves. Because of the patent currently held by Myriad Genetics, no other inquiries may be conducted into the genes without Myriad Genetics' consent. The test developed by Myriad Genetics, BRACAnalysis, costs over $3000.

The case of Myriad Genetics is hardly unique. The Public Patent Foundation estimates that 20% of all human genes are currently patented. As a result, research into all of these genes is controlled by the patent holders. Scientists have argued that because of this patenting, research has been hindered. Without the availability of access to certain genes potential research is unable to be carried out by interested scientists.

DNA research is booming. Many of the problems involved with DNA research, such as DNA sequencing costs, have decreased dramatically in the past 20 years. The publicly-funded Human Genome Project and the privately-funded Celera Genetics completely sequenced the human genome in 2003. The president at the time, Bill Clinton, declared the human genome could not be patented. Yet individual genes continue to be patented seemingly at will. The amount of DNA being collected and stored is also increasing.

States such as Canada, the U.S., and the UK maintain large DNA databases, in addition to the publicly available ones such as GenBank and Mitosearch. The problem therein lies when this DNA is used. Scientists have already been able to track anonymously donated DNA back to its donors. While state databases are designed to allow authorities to more easily identify criminals the safeguards relating to these databases are eroding. In the UK for instance, police are allowed to retain the DNA of individuals charged with crimes, even if they are acquitted. A similar policy caused a scandal in Norway in 2011.

Going even further, the National Health Service of the United Kingdom created a secret database of blood samples for all newborns. The government policy was that the samples should be destroyed after five years, yet some samples were kept for more than 20. Additionally, parents were not informed of these samples being taken. In essence, the UK created a massive DNA database network through its hospitals without consent. Similar policies have also been enacted in the U.S. The American program often gives the samples for outside research, and the samples are stored indefinitely.

DNA research is trending in one direction. Millions of DNA samples are being accumulated and stored with or without consent. You do not even own the genes within your own body. Until stricter safeguards are enacted to protect those who actually possess the genes, we will continue to follow into a Brave New World. 

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James Monteith

James recently completed his MA in Political Science from Carleton University. Previously he earned an Honours BSc from the University of Toronto in Biology. His interests include international relations, drug policy and development.

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