Our genes in their hands : OPINION

The privatisation to end all privatisations is under way. Multinational drugs corporations and tiny start-up biotechnology companies are busily staking their claim to own human genes. In laboratories around the world, human DNA - the chemical messenger of heredity - is being analysed in minute detail. The compendium of the 100,000 or so human genes is known as the genome, and the goal of lab workers around the world, participating in the international Human Genome Project, is to work out what each gene does.

The benefits will be greater understanding of heredity and human development. Health will also benefit, for many diseases, from diabetes to cancer, have a genetic component.

That means there is money to be made from human genes. Any pharmaceutical company that can corner the market in, say, cancer-causing genes - by patenting them - will enjoy assured profits for years to come. Tomorrow, the House of Commons Select Committeeon Science and Technology will take evidence on the patenting of human genes, as part of its parliamentary investigation into the "new" science of human genetics.

Two years ago the Nuffield Council on Bioethics published a report calling for government regulation of genetic testing and screening. Nothing has been done. The council also called for the insurance industry not to pry into the results of people's genetic tests. Last month, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) told the Select Committee it wants to see all results.

The committee gave the association a bipartisan hard time. A Conservative MP, Spencer Batiste, said it might improve public health if the population were screened, so that individuals would know their risk of developing disease or of having children who might suffer inherited conditions. But people would be discouraged from participating in such screening programmes if they knew the results, recorded on their medical records, would affect their chances of getting life or other insurance cover.

Professor Peter Harper, of University College Cardiff, told the committee he already knew of people who had been tested to see if they carried the gene for Huntington's Chorea (an inherited degenerative brain disease) and who did not want the results transmitted to their GPs because it might prejudice their chances of getting insurance. In Professor Harper's view, the industry was mistaken in regarding the results of genetic tests as part of someone's medical record. If someone who is currently healthy had a genetic test indicating the potential of disease in the future, that information did not alter the fact that the person was healthy now and so should not be entered on his or her medical record.

But Roger Bowley said the ABI opposed legislation that would stop insurers gaining access to the results of genetic tests, even though the committee pointed out no insurance company would be at a disadvantage against its rivals if the law denied access to the information to all companies.

Representatives of families affected by genetic disease are also concerned about genetic discrimination by the insurance industry. Alastair Kent, director of the Genetic Interest Group (GIG), called for proper regulation of the new genetics. But, he warned, it had to be open and transparent and consult interested parties, not be just a committee of the great and good sitting in secrecy.

Mr Kent opposed the trend towards the patenting of human genes: on ethical grounds, as it is intrinsically wrong for a third person to have a patent on something that is part of a person. But GIG is also against patenting on practical grounds. Someone with a headache, Mr Kent pointed out, can buy aspirin, and the existence of a market for headache remedies might stimulate innovation leading to the invention of paracetamol. But if a gene is patented, there is no way an inventor can go beyond the gene itself. A patent on a gene is on product and outcome: "If you own the gene, you have a unique monopoly," he said.

The committee has yet to hear the full evidence. One of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, Merck Sharp and Dohme, says it will publish the details of the gene sequences its researchers isolate, thus preventing anyone from claiming patent rights.

SmithKline Beecham, however, has gone into partnership with gene-hunting biotechnology companies, and specifically intends to patent as much as it can. The British company Zeneca believes that "genes are not different from any other area of technology",according to Peter Kolker, the company's intellectual property manager.

"There would not be a pharmaceutical industry if it were not for patents," Mr Kolker continued. "The treatments that are going to come out of gene technology will be beneficial. To deny patenting of sequences would deny that benefit to mankind."

News
Denny Miller in 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man
people
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl despairs during the arena auditions
tvX Factor review: Drama as Cheryl and Simon spar over girl band

News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Angel Di Maria celebrates his first goal for Manchester United against QPR
Football4-0 victory is team's first win under new manager Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
newsIn short, yes
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script
tv'Thomas comes right up to the abyss', says the actor
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris claimed the top spot in this week's single charts
music
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
News
Groundskeeper Willie has backed Scottish independence in a new video
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor poses the question of whether we are every truly alone in 'Listen'
tvReview: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode to date
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Life and Style
Cara Delevigne at the TopShop Unique show during London Fashion Week
fashion
News
The life-sized tribute to Amy Winehouse was designed by Scott Eaton and was erected at the Stables Market in Camden
peopleBut quite what the singer would have made of her new statue...
Sport
England's Andy Sullivan poses with his trophy and an astronaut after winning a trip to space
sport
News
peopleThe actress has agreed to host the Met Gala Ball - but not until 2015
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and i...

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Day In a Page

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories
Ashya King: We need to stop being cowardly about death

We need to stop being cowardly about death

Ashya King's story has made us confront the idea of terminal illness, in an age when we've lost the ability to discuss how we face our final days
They talk the talk, but do our leaders have the stomach to face up to the Russians?

They talk the talk, but do our leaders have the stomach to face up to the Russians?

Nato has a commitment to defend the Baltic states, unlike Ukraine. But those in charge seem less than committed, says Rupert Cornwell
Heaven on wheels: Meet the skateboarding padre

Heaven on wheels: Meet the skateboarding padre

Skateboards are no longer just for kids, the oldies are getting in on the act too
Can breakdance divert the young men of Tunisia from the killing fields of Iraq and Syria?

Can breakdance save the Arab Spring generation?

Sarfraz Manzoor gets down with the B-boys (and girls) of north Africa
Face of an angel, but has Cara Delevingne the talent to act?

Face of an angel, but has Cara Delevingne the talent to act?

A film based on the Meredith Kercher murder is a challenging first role for the supermodel