Lives versus Profits

NEW YORK – The United States Supreme Court recently began deliberations in a case that highlights a deeply problematic issue concerning intellectual-property rights. The Court must answer the following question: Can human genes – your genes – be patented? Put another way, should someone essentially be permitted to own the right, say, to test whether you have a set of genes that imply a higher than 50% probability of developing breast cancer?

To those outside the arcane world of intellectual-property rights, the answer seems obvious: No. You own your genes. A company might own, at most, the intellectual property underlying its genetic test; and, because the research and development needed to develop the test may have cost a considerable amount, the firm might rightly charge for administering it.

But a Utah-based company, Myriad Genetics, claims more than that. It claims to own the rights to any test for the presence of the two critical genes associated with breast cancer – and has ruthlessly enforced that right, though their test is inferior to one that Yale University was willing to provide at much lower cost. The consequences have been tragic: Thorough, affordable testing that identifies high-risk patients saves lives. Blocking such testing costs lives. Myriad is a true example of an American corporation for which profit trumps all other values, including the value of human life itself.

This a particularly poignant case. Normally, economists talk about trade-offs: weaker intellectual-property rights, it is argued, would undermine incentives to innovate. The irony here is that Myriad’s discovery would have been made in any case, owing to a publicly funded, international effort to decode the entire human genome that was a singular achievement of modern science. The social benefits of Myriad’s slightly earlier discovery have been dwarfed by the costs that its callous pursuit of profit has imposed.