Can someone own the alphabet? How about a word, or a string of letters in a code? If you decipher the code, do you get to own what it stands for? Now think about DNA. Your DNA code is really an incredibly long series of symbols (made up of a four-letter alphabet); this code translates into instructions for the building and operating of you. But 99.9 percent of your DNA code is exactly the same as everyone else’s all over the planet.
DNA is a powerful substance; it is essentially a code for life. Genes are small bits of DNA that code for traits like blue eyes, curly hair, and how tall you will be. Sometimes genes mutate, or change, just a little bit. Usually that’s no big deal. But sometimes a little change makes a big difference. Some mutations make people more likely to get diseases like diabetes or Alzheimer’s.
Imagine that scientists at a private company have identified a mutated gene that predicts whether a person is likely to get a certain disease. Since they invested a lot of time and money into identifying the gene, should the company have exclusive rights to using the gene to develop tests for the disease? In other words, should it be allowed to own a patent on that gene? It’s a tricky question, and one that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court last year. If you were a Supreme Court justice, what would you decide? (File a brief brief with us: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
WHAT THE COURT DECIDED
Who owns DNA? In June, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that since DNA is found in nature, it cannot be privately owned or patented. In other words, a company that identifies a gene linked with a disease cannot own exclusive rights to that sequence of DNA. But the ruling upholds the right to patent inventions that identify or synthesize certain genes, like tests for cancer and other genetic diseases.
Pitt bioethicist Lisa Parker helped us think about this quandary. For more kids’ stuff, www.howscienceworks.pitt.edu.