Copyright ©2009, Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine
Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes
Reviewed by Molly C. Kottemann
Molly C. Kottemann, Yale University, Department of Genetics;
Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes.
2009. Wiley-Blackwell: West Sussex, UK. ISBN: (Paperback) 978-1405187305. US $24.95 200 p
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives License, which permits for noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any digital medium, provided the original work is properly cited and is not altered in any way.
“Science cannot stop while ethics catches up,” claimed the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1950. In Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes, the author, philosopher, and legal scholar David Koepsell describes and dissects the tangle that results when science, in the form of wide-scale genomic sequencing, is permitted to proceed without a strict ethical and legal framework. Part primer, part prescription, Koepsell’s book offers a portrait of the current state of sequencing technology and the laws that regulate the use and status of its products, then proceeds to interrogate the fundamental validity of our existing system.
It is surprising — not to mention existentially disturbing — to learn that more than 20 percent of the human genome is currently owned by corporations, research institutes, and universities. Even more surprising is that the author claims that these patent systems have been cobbled together in a manner that is largely unmindful of legal precedent or philosophical soundness. Despite the sensationalist title, Koepsell generally steers clear of reactionary recoil, instead providing a measured consideration of the issues that arise at the intersection of intellectual property and human biology.
Beginning with the as-yet ignored basics, the author first deconstructs the relationship between genes and people, deftly highlighting the difficulty in owning and regulating the former without infringing upon the rights of the latter. Next, he sets out a history of patent law and how it traditionally has treated naturally occurring objects and resources, pointing out the discrepancies between these treatments and the management of genetic property rights. Finally, Koepsell evaluates the pragmatic consequences of this regulatory practice and examines our current system to see if it is tenable within the context of scientific progress.
At a time in which science is becoming increasingly rarified, the author presents a refreshingly interdisciplinary treatment of his subject. Difficult concepts in biology, policy, and ethics are each patiently explained, making it a book suitable for readers of diverse backgrounds. The author’s own background in philosophy, however, lends the text a syntax and vocabulary that may be unfamiliar — even uncomfortable — to the scientist or doctor. In this sense, the book feels subtextually targeted at legal scholars or philosophers despite its ambitions toward broadness, but Koepsell’s obvious passionate belief in the topical importance of this debate maintains the reader’s interest.
Who Owns You? is the first long-form, comprehensive treatment of the implications of gene patenting. As such, it deserves much credit for bringing the debate into the public eye, though it’s no template for policy change in itself. Perhaps most important is its application of philosophical analysis to bio-policy, an underutilized approach critical to scientific advancement. Koepsell’s book serves as a worthy starting point for anyone interested in interconnecting genetics, property law, and philosophy.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Nice Review in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine
Since it's Open Access, I'm also reproducing it here in its entirety: