Privatizing our 'genetic commons'

SOURCE: Toronto Star, Canada
AUTHOR: Stephen Scharper
DATE: 17.03.2007

Stephen Scharper, whose column appears every other Saturday, teaches
environmental ethics at the University of Toronto. Email him at

Can humans be patented?

Well, apparently, their cell lines can. At least that's what one U.S
agency thought.

On March 14, 1995, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) obtained
a patent on the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, the basic constituent of the
gene) of an indigenous man from the Hagahai, a people who live in a
remote region of Papua New Guinea. The NIH patent established claim on a
cell line in the Hagahai male which is linked to adult leukemia. The
DNA, it is presumed, will assist scientists in understanding the
enhancement or suppression of an immune response to a leukemia-
associated virus.

Not everyone thought such a patent was a nifty idea, especially the
Hagahai and the Papua New Guinea government. After much domestic and
international wrangling, the patent was withdrawn in 1996.

The patenting of the Hagahai cell line is but one flashpoint in a much
larger controversy.

Aboriginal communities, environmental groups, human rights
organizations, as well as many national governments of the south, oppose
the patenting of DNA in general, which often puts the control of genetic
research into the hands of powerful governments or private, largely
northern, corporations.

In addition, the patenting of indigenous peoples' DNA is seen by some as
yet another manifestation of First World exploitation, that is, the
"mining" of indigenous communities for raw materials that now include
their very DNA.

Indigenous peoples, critics argue, have become the target of gene
"prospectors" who seek, in this case, neither gold nor silver, but
patentable indigenous DNA, as well as the seeds and plants developed
over centuries by indigenous communities.

Some view this as an economic enclosure or privatization of the "genetic

The notion of a "genetic commons" is a broad-based, multi-faceted
response to a particular constellation of technological, cultural,
economic, political, ethical and legal developments of the past three decades.

Prompted principally by advances in biotechnology and the patenting of
life forms, the genetic commons movement seeks to critique and resist
the commodification and commercialization of "nature."

Rather, the movement seeks to establish a cosmological and political
space outside of, and protected from, contemporary market processes,
sometimes labelled "neoliberal" economics because of its support of
relaxed trade rules and reduced government control over national economies.

Many proponents of biotechnology argue that the technology will benefit
all of humankind both by making the production of food more efficient
and stable and by providing better diagnoses and treatment of diseases.

Such altruistic claims, however, can belie the relationship between
biotechnological advances and the field's deep roots in atomic research
and profit-driven agricultural, medical and pharmaceutical industries.

Before 1980, micro-organisms were utside of patenting jurisdictions
because they were considered to be part of nature.

In 1980, however, this principle radically changed when the U.S. Supreme
Court ruled (by a margin of five to four) in Diamond vs. Chakrabarty
that a bioengineered bacterium was patentable because it was human-made.

Since 1987, more than 460 patents have been issued on animals, including
the 1988 U.S. patent granted to the Harvard Oncomouse, a creature
genetically engineered to be susceptible to carcinogens and used in
medical research. Additionally, in a landmark decision in 1984, a patent
was granted on a cell line of U.S. businessman John Moore to the doctors
who had removed his cancerous spleen.

Such patenting has led some critics to call these practices "biopiracy."

One of the most vocal of these critics is Vandana Shiva, a physicist and
human rights advocate who speaks against "bioserfdom" and views the
Earth's genetic material as a common inheritance that should be held in
trust for a common future.

The enclosure of the "genetic commons" through neoliberal patenting
efforts subverts existing notions of the commons, she argues, because it
claims a deeper stratum - not of land boundaries but of soil components,
not of ancestry and lineage but of genetic material itself.

Shiva brings this message to Toronto next month at the Spirit Matters
2007 gathering, organized by the Transformative Learning Centre at the
Ontario Insitute of Studies in Education.

The April 22 to 25 gathering will bring aboriginal speakers,
environmental activists, writers, ethicists and interested participants
from around the word to reflect on issues of ecology, spirituality and
social justice. (For registration information, visit their website at:

As Shiva and other critics suggest, the enclosure of the genetic commons
through patenting, despite claims it will "raise all boats," runs the
risk of only "raising all yachts."

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