from the bloody-shame dept
Two of the key arguments during the Myriad Genetics trial were that gene patent monopolies stifle innovation by preventing others from building on and extending key knowledge, and that they can cause unnecessary suffering and even death by driving up prices for medical treatment beyond the reach of many people. Even though the Supreme Court struck down Myriad’s key patents, reducing those issues for DNA, a new technology with major ramifications for health runs the risk of suffering from precisely the same problems.
In this case, we’re talking about synthetic blood. Researchers based at the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine (SCRM) in Edinburgh have been granted a license to use stem cells to manufacture blood. As an article in The Scotsman explains, the potential benefits are huge:
If scientists succeed in producing blood from stem cells it could help overcome the recurring problem of shortages from donations, which often lead to appeals for donors of certain blood groups to come forward.
Producing blood products on an industrial scale could help provide supplies for use in hospitals, as well as in war zones and at the scene of accidents.
It would also combat the risk of new infections being transmitted between donors and recipients — a major concern as new diseases emerge before tests can be developed to identify them in blood supplies.
But as Wired reports, there’s a problem:
If the researchers at the SCRM choose to patent their technology … they could stand to make a fortune off the stuff — and destroy a lot of potential future research in the process.
Just as happened with Myriad. And Wired identifies another big issue here:
the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine will produce synthetic blood for the trials using induced pluripotent stem cells — adult cells that can be forced to act like embryotic stem cells. That means they’ll need stem cell donors as well as, later on, transfusion recipients, and neither of those come free.
“Most clinical trials offer some compensation,” said Benjamin. “They don’t call it payment; they consider it a stipend, ‘to offset the burden of participating.’ That means that, for the most part, people who are well off are not participating. People signing up on websites for clinical trials are often working-class men [and] men of color.”
As the article goes on to explore, this raises numerous ethical issues in terms of exploiting those who might find it harder to resist the promise of such payments for taking part in the necessary clinical trials. But maybe there’s a way of addressing both of these problems.
Not all clinical trials offer compensation, because people are often willing to help without payment in order to benefit society as a whole. Indeed, one of the strongest arguments for making clinical trial information freely available is that it is largely the result of members of the public agreeing to take part in trials for precisely this reason — not in order to boost the profits of some pharmaceutical company that keeps the results for itself. That suggests one way of encouraging people to become stem cell donors and transfusion recipients would be to promise that the results based on their participation will be made freely available for all scientists and companies to use. In other words, that no patents would be taken out on key discoveries.
And for those who think that it is unreasonable to expect scientists not to patent their work, Wired reminds us of a famous counter-example:
as [Polio vaccine] inventor Jonas Salk told a reporter in 1955 when asked who owned the patent for his discovery, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
Or DNA? Or human blood…?