The race to identify the human genetic make-up has been accompanied by another rush: to patent some of those genes just like the light bulb or the cotton gin. At least a thousand human genes already have been patented and thousands more are pending. Chances are, your genetic structure - your most private property - may well belong to someone else, 60 Minutes Correspondent Morley Safer reports.
By all rights, Steve Crohn should be dead. A gay man who was regularly exposed to the AIDS virus over a long period, Crohn himself expected to die of AIDS. But he didn't. Eventually he began to think that he might somehow be immune. So he offered himself up to the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York. Researchers there agreed to study him. They found he had natural resistance to the virus.
The reason was a genetic mutation that produced AIDS-resistant cells. The gene defect was a promising discovery for the research lab. The Diamond Center filed for a patent on the gene. But neither Crohn nor Eric Fuchs, who had a similar genetic mutation, were listed as co-owners of their own genetic material.
In a letter to 60 Minutes, the Diamond Center claims that the gene patent has not resulted in any financial gain for the non-profit organization. They state that Fuchs and Crohn cannot be considered as co-owners, as they did not "contribute intellectually" to the discovery of the gene mutation. Fuchs, who wants to share the patent, is not satisfied. "It was my idea that I was immune, it wasn't their idea," he says.
While technology takes us into a brave new world, the old world's laws are racing to catch up. Patents used to be reserved for inventions like the light bulb or the cotton gin. But in 1980 the Supreme Court ruled that a life form - a genetically altered bacterium used in oil spills - could be patented. As biotech companies began looking into gene research, that ruling became their license to patent human genes; the gold rush was on.
"Doctors are searching the globe, looking at patients as potential treasure troves," says Lori Andrews, an attorney who also advises Congress on biotech issues. "Because they can use your blood to find a very lucrative gene." She says that patents were never intended for products of nature like genes, which, she believes, are hardly inventions.
"I think that greed has become a cultural value in health care," she says.
But others argue that patent protection drives discovery. "The incentive to do even the threshold research would not be there if the patent system wasn't in place, to provide the kind of protection and the nurturing that new inventions need," says Todd Dickenson, former head of the U.S. Patent Office.
©MMII CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed