In June, the Supreme Court decided that human genes cannot be patented. Regardless, the biotech company Myriad Genetics started filing lawsuits against companies who began providing tests for the genes that are linked to breast cancer after the Court’s decision. Two universities also signed on to that lawsuit: the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Utah Research Foundation.
After the Court’s decision, the University of Utah responded on its Facebook page by noting, “The battle that really matters isn’t in court; it’s the one against cancer,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Nonetheless, the university took renewed action to prosecute those who provide cheaper testing for the breast cancer gene.
Ironically, Myriad sent letters of cease and desist to a University of Pennsylvania researcher who had to stop research and testing of an alternate, lower-cost testing procedure for identifying the genes — because of patents her own university owned.
And the issue is broader than those two universities. Publicly funded universities who also receive federal grants for research are cashing in for billions of dollars in patents. In 2011 alone, universities raked in $1.8 billion. While the money might provide for research that would otherwise go unfunded, backing companies that want to monopolize sectors of medical research goes against their own missions of discovery and free data.
As Wonkblog’s Timothy Lee states, “The standard argument for patents holds that they are needed to reward inventors for their creative endeavors. But that argument doesn’t make as much sense for universities,” because universities are supposed to be an even playing field. While biotech companies might monopolize industry, universities are intended to further our collective knowledge and to allow whole populations the chance to lead better lives.
For instance, take a recent example of a momentous scientific discovery. In 1990, scientists and researchers, backed by public money, began to map the human genome. The project was a huge breakthrough for medical research around the world, and has allowed others to find ways to cure or prevent diseases. At the same time, a for-profit company also tried to map the genome — and if they had succeeded, their data and findings would’ve been sealed up by patents, stifling discoveries to gain profits.
Kirsten Gibson is an intern for ThinkProgress.