An interesting question posed by Michael Specter in The New Yorker‘s new Science & Tech section:
On April 12, 1955, Jonas Salk, who had recently invented the polio vaccine, appeared on the television news show “See It Now” to discuss its impact on American society. Before the vaccine became available, dread of polio was almost as widespread as the disease itself. Hundreds of thousands fell ill, most of them children, many of whom died or were permanently disabled.
The vaccine changed all that, and Edward R. Murrow, the show’s host, asked Salk what seemed to be a reasonable question about such a valuable commodity: “Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” Salk was taken aback. “Well, the people,” he said. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
The very idea, to Salk, seemed absurd. But that was more than fifty years ago, before the race to mine the human genome turned into the biological Klondike rush of the twenty-first century. Between 1944, when scientists determined that DNA served as the carrier of genetic information, and 1953, when Watson and Crick described it as a double helix, the rate of discovery was rapid. Since then, and particularly after 2003, when work on the genome revealed that we are each built out of roughly twenty-five thousand genes, the promise of genomics has grown exponentially.
The intellectual and commercial bounty from that research has already been enormous, and it increases nearly every day, as we learn ways in which specific genes are associated with diseases—or with mechanisms that can prevent them. It took thousands of scientists and technicians more than a decade to complete the Human Genome Project, and cost well over a billion dollars. The same work can now be carried out in a day or two, in a single laboratory, for a thousand dollars—and the costs continue to plummet. As they do, we edge closer to one of modern science’s central goals: an era of personalized medicine, in which an individual’s treatment for scores of illnesses could be tailored to his specific genetic composition. That, of course, assumes that we own our own genes…
[continues in The New Yorker]
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