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“Patenting Life” Article by Crichton

Gene engineering and testing propose great opportunities for a modern man to prolong life and reduce the number of illnesses affected by mankind. Many researchers and common people have supposed gene engineering as one of the promising fields of modern science still nobody expected that genes and diseases will be patented by other individuals. In the article, “Patenting Life”, Michael Crichton questions the validity of patents on human life and health.

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Patents prevent millions of people, today and in the future, from adequate medical treatment and disease prevention methods. As scientists take important, though halting, steps toward molding the physical and behavioral characteristics of future generations, and look to the eradication of genetic diseases and deformities, concerns are being voiced over the possible misuse of what has come to be known as human engineering. Many scientists and laypeople are alarmed or uneasy about these new approaches to constructing and reconstructing living matter and mental function. For while the potential benefits are enormous, so too are the risks. Gene copying, for instance, may one day help scientists to wipe out inherited disease, but it could also be used for more insidious purposes Today they are referred to as bioethical questions, dealing as they do with biology, the science of life, and ethics, the philosophy of human conduct and the determination of right and wrong. Underlying them all is one of the most important, perhaps the most important, questions: That question has divided the scientific, religious, and legal communities.

Researchers claim that patents are the best way of financing current research and development of gene engineering, still, they omit the question of ownership on genes. There are extremists on both sides of the issue, as there are in every controversy; there are also advocates of a more moderate course of action. On one end are those who would halt all research involving the manipulation of mind and matter. “Gene patents are now used to halt research, prevent medical testing and keep vital information from you and your doctor. Gene patents slow the pace of medical advance on deadly diseases” (Crichton). On the other, those who would proceed at all costs because they believe that all science and knowledge are good, or they believe in science for science’s sake alone. Another view, somewhere in between, holds that, while the potential benefits to humankind far outweigh the risks, there must be controls on such research and carefully formulated guidelines.

It is evident from Crichton’s analysis that human life and genes become products bought and sold at the marketplace. If you have no money to buy a piece of health, you will die. The patent holder blocks any competitor’s test. He owns the gene. Nobody else can test for it. In fact, you can’t even donate your own breast cancer gene to another scientist without permission” (Crichton). For better or for worse, the fields of biology and human behavior are growing fast and will undoubtedly alter the course of our lives much more than they already have. It is important that you have as much information as possible about what scientists are doing, and why they are doing it. Only then will you be able to make a judgment about whether or not, or how, they should be pursuing their work. For just as politics is too important to be left to politicians, so is science too important to be left only to scientists. genetics is not entirely responsible for our individuality, nor for any abnormality that we may have. It is very difficult to separate the role of heredity from the role of the environment in the development of the individual. The first, nature, means the genes that we inherit from our parents; nurture refers to all of the social and physical circumstances of our daily lives. Nurture includes such factors as being rich, poor, or middle-class; our nutritional and working habits; even the effects of our exposure to viruses and environmental pollutants. There is little doubt that the environment is crucial to what we become. Just how crucial, no one can really say — at least insofar as humans are concerned. In pea plants and frogs, it is relatively easy to separate out the genetic factors simply by cross-breeding, as Mendel did, and manipulating the environment to suit the experiment. One might, for example, deliberately withhold nourishment from a mouse to determine the effects of such a drastic move on it or its offspring. But for studying human beings, these experiments are not possible — or at least not advisable. About the only course left open to a geneticist is to manipulate and mate cells in a test tube, and to observe closely all of the peculiarities and similarities that crop up in families, and in individual members of a wide variety of populations.

The article states that millions of dollars are agents on gene engineering and testing but only a limited number of patients can take benefit from them. The new techniques provided a way of isolating specific genes and of inserting them in the cells of gene-caused diseases such as sickle cell anemia. The inserted gene would then take over from the defective genes. More than 4000 diseases are thought to result from the defective functioning of a gene or a set of genes and if it were possible to identify the location or site of each gene on a chromosome, it might also be possible to replace the defective gene by gene therapy or gene manipulation. At present scientists have identified some specific gene defects or abnormalities: some of these defects increase the risk of diabetes, others are linked to the risk of manic-depression and schizophrenia, others again result in dwarfism or the terrible disability. Many of the so-called monogenic diseases–those caused by the malfunctioning of a single gene–can now be detected while the embryo is in the womb. At present, the only alternatives for a woman carrying an embryo with a severe genetic disorder are either to go through with the pregnancy or to have it terminated. But it has become possible to detect genetic abnormalities from single cells taken from IVF embryos before they are implanted and a woman likely to have a genetically defective child can now select genetically normal embryos before they are implanted. This obviates any need for the termination of pregnancy. In the past anti-abortion groups have opposed genetic screening because if a fetus were diagnosed as having a severe genetic disorder such as cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy, abortion was the only alternative for the mother. Now, however, it is possible for some women at least to avoid having an abortion. In any case, genetic screening probably saves more lives by enabling couples with a high risk of transmitting a genetic disorder to continue pregnancies.

Some people argue that this kind of genetic intervention is motivated by the desire of parents to have a ‘perfect’ child and an unwillingness to accept what nature and the genetic lottery come up with. It is hard to understand this kind of objection. Anyone who knows something about the terrible, dehumanizing, effects of some genetic diseases would want their children to escape them if it were possible (Watson 547). It’s not a matter of wanting to have a ‘perfect’ child made to order; it’s simply wanting to have a child who is not going to develop into a human vegetable, or suffer total paralysis, or have gross deformities. In my view, parents likely to have children with such genetically caused diseases have a moral obligation to take what means are at hand to avoid passing on those genetic defects to their offspring. Remedying genetic defects in this way is sometimes called ‘negative’ eugenics in that we are using our knowledge of human genetics to get rid of certain defects and are not directly attempting to improve or enhance the human stock. This latter is called ‘positive eugenics’ and is more or less identical with the program of the old eugenics movement.

In sum, patents on human life and genes discriminate against patients and their human rights for health and wellness. Despite the positive and promising outcomes of genetic research and testing, all the most recent work in genetics has shown how extraordinarily complex the genetic control and regulation of human characteristics and functions are, and how impractical it is to manipulate most of the genetic mechanisms in any direct way. Some human characteristics and pathological conditions are controlled by a single gene and these are mostly manipulated, but many others are regulated by a number of genes interacting with each other in very complex ways. Some genes directly determine specific human characteristics, but others provide conditions or dispositions for human traits and functions. Again, there is a continual reaction between genetic factors and external environmental factors. What this means is that, while it is quite feasible to predict that a number of single patented diseases will be able to be remedied by genetic manipulation, positive eugenics or the reshaping of human beings is, scientifically speaking, likely to remain a dream for millions of poor.

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Works Cited

Crichton, Michael. “Patenting Life” NYTimes. 2007. Web.

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