Archive for March, 2010

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Patent on human cancer gene struck down

Wednesday, 31 March, 2010

At last! Finally somebody has a clue! Maybe this will lead to the invalidation of the patents over the 20-something% of (protein-coding) human genes currently patented.

On Myriad Genetics Inc patent claims on two breast and ovarian cancer genes, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet ruled that they were invalid:

Sweet said he invalidated the patents because DNA’s existence in an isolated form does not alter the fundamental quality of DNA as it exists in the body nor the information it encodes.

He rejected arguments that it was acceptable to grant patents on DNA sequences as long as they are claimed in the form of “isolated DNA.”

“Many, however, including scientists in the fields of molecular biology and genomics, have considered this practice a `lawyer’s trick’ that circumvents the prohibitions on the direct patenting of the DNA in our bodies but which, in practice, reaches the same result,” he said.

The judge said his findings were consistent with Supreme Court rulings that have established that purifying a product of nature does not mean it can be patented.

And, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I agree with somebody at the Center for Genetics and Society:

“The evidence has mounted that human gene patents are doing more harm than good,” and resulted more by accident than a well-thought-out policy, said Jesse Reynolds, a policy analyst at the Center for Genetics and Society. The center is a nonprofit policy research group advocating for oversight and responsible use of biotechnologies.

The Myriad patent “was particularly troublesome” because it was so broadly worded, Reynolds said.

Reading the court ruling, “I saw nothing that limited it to Myriad’s patents,” Reynolds said. It boiled down to this, he said: “Natural things aren’t patentable; inventions are.” [emphasis mine]

Damn straight! If and when you make your own human genes, with enhanced function or resistance to mutation or whatever, then sure, patent away. As the ruling says, you can only patent a gene that has ‘markedly different’ characteristics from a natural gene. A silent or conservative mutation won’t cut it. You’d have to do something like, take a gene from another animal, and put it in humans with the right enhancers, promotor and introns to have it properly expressed in human tissue. Then it has a ‘markedly different characteristic’, namely, specific expression in human tissue rather than in the original animal.

I’ve got no problem with people walking around with patented genes in their body, or even people being born with a genome that is partially owned by somebody. That’s necessary for biotech companies to make money from human gene therapy and human enhancement. I’ve just got a problem with people trying to claim as their own something that evolved naturally before they were even born.

Let’s just hope this holds up in the Supreme Court, where this case will inevitably end up.

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Keeping the brain plastic

Wednesday, 31 March, 2010

Neural plasticity, the capacity for neurons to change their connections, is a fundamental property of the brain. It’s what allows us to learn. But as we age, the plasticity of the brain decreases. Indeed, there are developmental windows called ‘critical periods’ where the brain is especially plastic, usually when very young. The neural basis for vision, as an example, is laid down at during infancy, and doesn’t change easily thereafter. This is why kittens, raised in a visual environment of many vertical stripes, find it difficult as adult cats to see horizontal stripes – their brains, while plastic, had adapted for certain visual features, and found it difficult to adapt to new ones.

Recently, researchers at the University of California San Francisco have found a way to renew the infant-like plasticity of the mouse brain, allowing childlike learning to begin again. They did this by injecting embryonic mouse neurons (not to be confused with embryonic stem cells) into young mice, which had been raised with one eye deprived of light. Without the injection, mice that were deprived up until around a month old (the usual critical period for mouse ocular dominance) would have difficulty adapting to seeing through the eye that had been deprived of light. But with an injection of embryonic neurons into the brain, the mice went through sort of a second critical period, when the injected brain cells were about a month old, thereby aiding the mice to learn to see from their deprived eye.

This has profound consequences for enhancement of human intelligence. The obvious therapeutic outcome would be using embryonic human neurons, taken from human embryos or cultured from human embryonic stem cells, and injecting these into adult humans to give a second chance at a critical period of learning, which would be useful for re-learning to walk after an injury or learning to adapt to blindness (or, I don’t know…learning to control your new cyborg limbs?). But on a grander scale, if we could have a constant trickle of neural stem cells, developing into immature neurons, throughout life, we could very well keep our critical periods going for the rest of our lives, allowing our brains to stay young and malleable!

There is one caveat I can think of. There must be a reason why the brain has evolved to shut off critical periods of learning. Most likely, learning is a costly process in some way, thereby creating a pressure to keep learning periods are short as possible. ┬áIf this is merely an increased energy cost, humans in the first world can probably deal with it (seeing as most of us eat too much food energy anyway). But if shutting down mechanisms of learning is necessary for enhancing the function of the newly learned circuits (that is, if we don’t perform as well if we keep ‘changing our minds’), there may be a question of whether learning is worth the cost.

I would assume in this ever changing technological environment and with our lives getting longer and longer (making what we learned during our critical period more and more irrelevant), that keeping the brain plastic would be very useful indeed.