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Corporate body snatchers at work

The patenting of human genes is going on at a terrifying rate. And most people don’t even know that their bodies are being used to generate vast corporate profits.

Harriet Washington has researched major changes in United States law which have legalised the “corporate takeover of life itself”.

In an interview with AlterNet, she outlines how a crucial piece of legislation, the Bayh-Doyle Act of 1980, unleashed the granting of 40,000 patents over the past 30 years.

Before the legislation, universities that did the gene research were not allowed to sell their patents to private corporations, on the grounds that the discoveries had been developed with public money or “tax dollars”.

The US Supreme Court, in the 1980 landmark case in Diamond v Chakrabarty, went much further than the researcher (Ananda Chakrabarty) and the patent office expected. Rather than patenting Chakrabarty’s invention of process of creating bacteria which could “eat crude oil”, the court decided that living things themselves could be patented.

More recently, the ruling has allowed not only genetic sequences in our bodies to be patented but even entire living creatures, such as the OncoMouse which “is guaranteed to get cancer”, developed by Harvard University.

Washington points to the cases of two patients whose cells were used to make millions of dollars in profits for the medical-industrial complex. The patients concerned were never consulted or compensated. Adding insult to injury, the family of African-American Henrietta Lacks were lied to. They believe that researcher Dr George Gey of the prestigious John Hopkins university “did not want the world to know that this was a black lady helping science”.

In the case of leukaemia patient John Moore whose spleen was used to create a lucrative cell line, Dr David Golde of the University of California got a contract for $3 million in 1980 with generic drug manufacturer, the pharma giant Sandoz, a subsidiary of Novartis.

Many hospitals ask unsuspecting patients to sign consent forms before surgery which hand over the rights to any tissues of cells taken from the body to private corporations.

The gene/body-part sell-off is even more widespread after someone dies. Medical examiners laws or presumed consent laws allow coroners to take tissues and then sell them on to brokers who transfer them to surgeons or hospitals. “At each step, there is a hefty fee paid,” Washington says.

What about the argument that companies are saving lives through medical research which would otherwise not be carried out? The reality is that corporations like Myriad Genetics, which hold patents on the genes that predispose women to breast cancer, do not allow researchers to work on the genes without their permission. The American Civil Liberties Union and a patent body have mounted a legal challenge.

Washington’s accounts of how companies use and abuse the African continent for cheap drugs trials are even more shocking. During a meningitis epidemic in Nigeria, Pfizer set up tents directly next to those operated by Doctors Without Borders to draw in desperate parents.

As Washington notes: “Maximising the profit on the patient is the focus, not curing the maximum number of people.” Of the 1,233 new drugs devised by Big Pharma between 1975 and 1997, only four were designed for people in the developing world.

Attempts by benevolent capitalists like Bill Gates to bring vaccines to the developing world are problematic. His initiative, called GAVI, is already $3 billion in debt.

In case we lull ourselves into seeing this as American madness, in the UK things are possibly even more dangerous. Over a decade ago, New Labour drove through legislation allowing private companies to claim plant and animal genes and even human organs.

The UK Supreme Court recently overturned an earlier decision so that the Nasdaq-listed Human Genome Sciences corporation now has greater patent rights in the UK than under current US law.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
28 November 2011

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