Can Corporations Own Your DNA?

Gene patents
Can companies own body parts? Some pharmaceutical companies already own the patents to certain genes, and in a lawsuit filed this week, the ACLU says that is tantamount to owning the genes themselves. Cancer patients and the ACLU mounted the suit, saying that the patents stifle research and limit their treatment options.

It's hard to believe, but private companies hold the patent rights to some of the genes in your body. The companies say the patents help them develop new treatments for serious diseases. But this week, a group of cancer patients and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit claiming the patents put them in danger, reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews

After facing and surviving breast cancer, Genae Gerard simply had to know more. A widely available genetic test - known as the BRAC test - revealed that she carried the gene BRCA 2, which also put her at higher risk for ovarian cancer.

When she tried to look for an alternate test for a second opinion, she learned no that other tests are permitted.

"You cannot get a second opinion on the BRAC testing because there's only one company that does it," Gerard said. "That's the problem."

That one company, Utah-based Myriad, doesn't just own the test. It was able to patent the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 - the genes most often linked to breast and ovarian cancer. And owning the patent essentially means that Myriad owns the genes themselves.

"Common sense should tell everybody that it's wrong to allow a private company to own a body part," ACLU attorney Chris Hansen said.

In what could be a landmark lawsuit, the ACLU is challenging the private ownership of body parts.

Today an estimated 20 percent of all human genes have been patented, including some linked to Alzheimer's disease and cystic fibrosis, and the lawsuit argues that private ownership is restricting - not helping - the invention of new therapies.

"The effect of this gene patent has been to stifle medical treatment and medical research," Hansen said.

In a statement to CBS News, Myriad argues the opposite, saying that the patent system that protects genetic inventions helps "a large number of lifesaving pharmaceutical and diagnostic products."

Legally, this could be a free-for-all.

While the courts and Congress are inclined to protect genuine invention, genes exist naturally in the body. And if you can't patent natural products like water, the argument goes, how can you patent DNA?

  • Wyatt Andrews
    Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.