February 14, 2012


I came across a profile of a female attorney, Lori Andrews, in the February issue of “More” magazine, a woman about to argue the question, “Who Owns Your Body?” before the US Supreme court. But don’t be misled. This isn’t a debate about a women’s right to choose. It’s about DNA — who can claim it; who can use it to make a profit, and who owns the information derived from an individual’s tissue.

Since the US patent office began, anything that was a part of the natural world could not be patented. But in 1980, “the Supreme Court held that patents could be granted on anything under the sun that is made by man.”  (“Who Owns Your DNA Anyway?” by Nina Burleigh, More, 2/2012) Since that time, genetic researchers have claimed that genes separated from their DNA are not natural but a product of laboratory manipulation and are therefore subject to patents. This interpretation has been challenged by parents of children who suffer from Canavan disease, an illness that brings early death. Their afflicted off-spring had participated in a hospital study to isolate the defective gene in the hope of finding a cure. When the parents discovered the hospital had taken a proprietary stance and refused to share these tissue samples with other research institutions without hefty licensing and royalty fees, the parents cried foul.

(courtesy: Inetvideo.com)

Lori Anderson took the case on behalf of the families, arguing that the donated tissue belonged to the public. Eventually, a settlement was reached but the question of ownership was left unanswered. Anderson will soon bring that debate before the US Supreme Court. She insists that just as a kidney can be removed from a patient’s body yet still remain a kidney so, too, a gene isolated from its sequence remains a natural object and is not patentable. She feels confident she will win despite the medical industry’s warning that if she does, expensive medical research will be brought to an end.

As she plans for her day in court, Anderson is looking ahead to another landmark battle: private rights versus commercial interests. Her new book, “I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did” is a prelude to her challenge to social media. This time she seeks to limit data collected at these sites and sold to advertisers.   Anderson, I suspect, will have a majority of people rooting for her.