Posted tagged ‘Biotechnology’

We All Know (Own) Our ACGTs

June 13, 2013

This is more a “hey, look at this” post than any considered analysis, but the Supremes just handed down what will probably be the biggest non-politics-centered decision of this or many sessions: you can’t patent genes.

Twins_Grace_and_Kate_Hoare_1876

Interestingly, this result was apparently not even close as a matter of law, as the decision, written by Clarence Thomas, was unanimous:

“A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated,” he said. “It is undisputed that Myriad did not create or alter any of the genetic information encoded in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.”

The case concerned Myriad Genetics which holds (held!) the patents on the BRCA 1 and 2 genes hat — as the Angelina Jolie story recently made famous — are in some variant (mutant) forms highly correlated with very nasty strains of breast and ovarian cancer.  The life and death stakes involved in access to the genetic diagnostics that could run $3,000 per test that Myriad controlled through its patents certainly frame this case — but the implications of this ruling are, simply, huge, as much biotech investment has chased sequences in a strategy that bears some resemblance to classic patent trolling.

The ruling did preserve what seems to me to be the original intent of patent law (see Lewis Hyde’s excellent Common as Air for an account of the origins of intellectual property ideas in the thinking of the American founding fathers).  You can still patent modifications and applications of technology to the raw material of nature that a mere sequence represents.

I really am just digesting this.  I’ve talked to people over the years who have been mournfully horrified by the constraints on research and the discovery of real public goods imposed by a too permissive patent regime — Jim Watson told me the same story that he’s repeated in public many times of being asked by Leo Szilard if he and Crick thought about patenting the double helix.  When Watson replied that he didn’t think it was (or should be) patentable, Szilard then said (Watson recalls) that maybe he could copyright it.  Watson and Crick’s incredulity at thought was typical for the time, but we’ve drifted far, far away from that now…and it’s good to see the pendulum swinging back.

But as I say, first, fast reactions here. This is a decisions that’s going to ring out for a while, and it will be fascinating to see what comes.

Image: John Everett Millais, Twins, 1876.

For Good Times In Cambridge

April 11, 2013

Three quick notices of fine talks to attend at MIT over the next week:

My colleagues Ta-Nehisi Coates and Seth Mnookin will be tag-teaming Mark McKinnon — yeah this Mark McKinnon — in just a little bit, 5 p.m. this afternoon.  Ta-Nehisi will be conversing/interviewing McKinnon, and Seth will moderate in this latest in the MIT Communications Forum series of talks. It’ll be happening up in MIT’s new Media Lab building, which is a beaut, on the sixth floor, or, in MIT speak, in E14-633.  The interactive map is your friend.

Here’s the abstract for the event:

In the 2012 presidential campaign, a handful of media outlets deployed “fact-checking” divisions which reported the lies and distortions of the candidates.  Some commentators have argued that these truth-squads exposed the inadequacy of standard print and broadcast coverage, much of which seems more like entertainment than news.  This forum will examine the changing role of the political media in the U.S.  Is our political journalism serving democratic and civic ideals? What do emerging technologies and the proliferation of news sources mean for the future?

It should be interesting, and, of course, for the Balloon Juice snarlers, McKinnon’s role as a founder of the No Labels brand of (in my view) faux centrism might elicit some fun questions.  One note:  the room is fairly small, and while I don’t think this event has been hugely publicized, there might be a premium on seating.

Self-portrait_by_Salvator_Rosa

Next, (and giving y’all a little more notice) Seth and Ta-Nehisi will converse with David Carr, the New York Times’ media critic on Wed., April 17, 7 p.m. in  Building 6, room 120 (6-120, as folks in the Shire reckon addresses.)  The event is running under the title “The Future of Print in the Digital Age” and is sponsored as part of the Writer’s Series within MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, its Graduate Program in Science Writing, and the MIT Program in Science Technology and Society.  Should be a very smart evening; Carr’s one of the really good ones.  Again 6-120 is a reasonably large room — about 120 seats, I think — but this is one that should get a lot of interest, so if you want to be there, give yourself a little extra time.

Finally, my former student Emily Anthes is coming back to MIT to speak about her new book Frankenstein’s Cat. You might recall that Emily and I had a conversation about the book last month (podcast here).  Emily has taken a serious and very well researched look at the intersection of biotechnology and the animals closest to their human partners/owners/users.  The result of that work is a gracefully written book that wears the author’s knowledge lightly, and argues its point — the technological manipulation of animals is both inevitable and at least potentially a benefit to both parties to the deal — with grace and rigor.  She’s got a lot to say, and she says it well.  If this is the sort of thing you like to engage, this will be a fine evening too.  Her talk is the day after Carr’s, April 18 at 7 p.m. in yet another of MIT’s utterly impenetrably named venues, 56-114 — building 56, room 114.

Fun for the whole family, with decent pizza nearby for afters.  What could be bad?

Image:  Salvator Rosa, Self Portrait, 1645.  The caption reads in translation: “Be Quiet, Unless Your Speech Be Better Than Silence.”