Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Intellectual Property of Genes

The field of genetics is relatively a new one within the science world.  As within every industry, the discovery of new things and new processes leads to legal issues, including intellectual property rights and patents.  The field of genetics has been no different.

As genes, specific sequences of DNA, began to be discovered, scientists started requesting patents on "their" genes. Previous to 2001, some of these discoveries (identification of a gene's sequence alone) were granted patents.  In 2001 though, questions were raised about patents of genes and some demanded that the bar be raised for patents.  Their argument was that these patents will limit the use of basic genetic information, and may inhibit or slow biomedical research.  They had a solid argument in my opinion.

The concern was well received, and the grounds for a patent were modified.  The current guidelines state that "identification of a gene's sequence alone is not patentable, but that a gene isolated from its natural state may be patentable if the applicants can demonstrate 'specific, substantial and credible utility' for the discovery" (from  These guidelines have allowed for the worldwide sharing of human genomes, in order to increase the data available and allow the field to advance further. 

Still, if your genome is tested, do you want it available to just anyone? Or is that information your own property?  Currently it is available to anyone, although names are not attached to genomes.  I don't honestly see an issue with it, but someday if we are using our genomes to allow pharmacy to give us 'taylor-made' drugs, I could see an issue with a database of genomes being available online.  People may take advantage of it to illegally obtain drugs they otherwise could not obtain.  Ultimately, the industry is still just taking its first baby steps in my opinion, so time will tell how these issues are resolved.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Genetic Testing on Unborn Fetuses

I've talked about the ethics of genetic testing on humans, as well as the ethics of GM crops and livestock.  Now I'd like to have some discussion on the unborn.  Genetic testing on fetuses is routinely offered by doctors and is legal at this point in time.  We have discussed the ability of a genetic test to show susceptibility to diseases, and it can also show potential birth defects.  Genetic testing on a fetus requires an invasive test, which means a sample of the placenta or amniotic fluid is needed.  Invasive tests themselves carry some  risk as there is a small chance that they could induce a miscarriage.  There are other "prenatal" tests that measure protein levels in the mother's blood to determine risk for Down Syndrome, among other defects, but these screenings are not as accurate as a genetics test.  

Genetic testing on the fetuses may help a doctor in providing the best care and management of the patients pregnancy, and help a couple to prepare for a baby with birth defects.  Though, it is important for doctors to explain that some of these tests only show a higher risk for a disease/defect, and do no necessarily mean that the baby will be affected.  The testing also raises ethical questions, because certain parents may opt for abortion if they find their baby will have birth defects or down syndrome.  For this reason, some believe genetic testing on fetuses should not be allowed. 

Unfortunately, this issue really is a larger one in disguise (the legality of abortion), so it is difficult to pin down.  In my opinion, there is nothing ethically wrong with genetically testing a fetus.  If the parents wish to know if their baby is healthy, then they should know.  What the parents do with the information is also their business.  It is critical to be able to distinguish between the two separate issues.  Let those who are against abortion not use genetic testing as the scapegoat.  I say this, because I would speculate that those against genetic testing of fetuses are also against the legality of abortion.  Genetic testing on fetuses should continue to be offered to parents who desire information about the health of their baby.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Ethics of Bio-Engineering

During this semester of blogging, I have learned that bio/genetic engineering and ethics have become inseparable.  You cannot talk about the engineering without addressing the ethics.  The video from below shows many examples of bioengineering and asks questions about the ethics involved.  I'll summarize the video below, but if this is something that interests you, I recommend viewing it.

Mainly what I take from this video is that the line between what is ethical and unethical is very unclear in bioengineering.  In fact, it is so hazy that I cannot even speculate on a place to actually draw the line.  Some will say it should have been drawn years ago when we created "roundup ready" corn.  Others will say that we should use this technology to the fullest in order to help our society, despite any ethical questions that may be raised.

Regardless of your opinion, humans are now able to design the evolution of plants, animals, and possibly humans someday.  Darwinian evolution is really out the window in any place where the human hand is present.  It started 10,000 years ago when we began to control our environments, create irrigation systems, and decide how much of which crops would be grown and which animals would be bred.  Now, we can control evolution in the laboratory, which opens up a infinite amount of possibilities.

One of the issues the video brings up is the design of animals as living "factories" to produce medicines we require.  For example, a goat has been genetically modified to produce antithrombin in its milk.  As helpful as it could be, this is the type of industry where large factories could house thousands of animals in terrible living conditions, keeping the animals barely alive, so they can produce a product.  We have seen how some ranches and slaughter houses treat their cows and chickens, and this potential situation could yield similar results.

Everyone will see it differently, but I feel the line will need to be drawn somewhere.  The problem with drawing it is that bioengineering covers so many fields.  There's genetically modified crops and animals for food consumption, engineered animals for pets, engineered bugs that could be used as spying devices, and someday humans could also be genetically modified.  The possibilities are limitless and frightening.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Another Genetic Link to Alzheimer's

Up to 79% of a person's susceptibility to Alzheimer's is determined by a person's genes.  Several genetic links have already been traced to Alzheimer's disease.  Most notably, the gene APOE was discovered  in 1995 and greatly increases a person's risk for the disease.  Inheritance of the APOE gene from one parent increases Alzheimer risk by 400%, and from both parents increased risk by 1000%.  Today, the APOE gene is the main indicator of Alzheimer's risk when examining a human's genome. 

The evidence for the newly discovered genes is substantial, but it is believed these genes only raise risk 10-15%, so they will not be used to decide a person's risk for Alzheimer's.  The new genes do present further evidence for the correlation between cholesterol and Alzheimer's disease, as they are involved in cholesterol production in the human body.  Doctors and scientists are hopeful that more discoveries like this will help future treatment for the disease, as people susceptible could be treated beforehand to prevent Alzheimer's.

 Dr. Schellenberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, led the effort to discover four of the five new genes related to Alzheimer's.  Schellenberg believed many genetic studies were being conducted within small, isolated groups.  He also believes scientists have been hesitant to share their data and findings with others, and says that this must stop if advances are to be made in the field.  For his recent discovery of the new genes, Schellenberg compiled patient data from nearly every Alzheimer's research group in the country.  This large sample made the discovery of the genes possible.