Biotech researchers are searching for rare genetic traits with market potential. Your body could be next
John Moore's spleen was worth $3 billion. It was also killing him. His doctors saved his life, but took his genetic fortune.
A rare disease called hairy cell leukemia had swollen Moore's spleen to 40 times its normal weight. His doctors told him he would die. But he recovered as soon as the giant gland was removed. The Seattle surveyor was soon healthy enough to return to work.
Dr. David Golde was amazed. Searching for answers, he examined Moore's blood. There he found cells able to produce unusual quantities of proteins that stimulate the immune system, such as interferon and interleukin. People fighting diseases ranging from cancer to HIV pay huge sums of money for expensive-to-manufacture proteins like these. In Moore's blood, Golde had found a biological factory that could produce these valuable drugs for less.
Golde cultured a cell line he called the "Mo" line. He patented the Mo line, and the rights later were sold to a Swiss pharmaceutical giant for $15 million. The Mo line has since generated more than $3 billion in sales.
Moore took Golde to court. He asked for Mo money. The court found that Moore had no rights over his own body tissue.
Moore's 1990 case showed how ill-prepared the patent and legal systems are in the face of the burgeoning biotech revolution. Scientists like Golde, and the Scottish biologists who successfully cloned an adult sheep named Dolly, are re-engineering life at the genetic level. Their work is changing the course of human history more than any event since the discovery of fire. And their lucrative patents are attracting massive funding from investors such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and corporate raider Carl Ichan.
Futurist Jeremy Rifkin fears that such biotech buccaneers could soon gain the rights not only to John Moore's spleen, but to each and every part of each and every one of us. In his book "The Biotech Century," Rifkin warns: "It's likely that within less than 10 years, all 100,000 or so genes that comprise the genetic legacy of our species will be patented, making them the exclusive intellectual property of global pharmaceutical, chemical, agribusiness and biotech companies."
Dreams of treasures propelled European explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries to stake claims to each new territory they stumbled across. Likewise, today's profit-minded gene hunters are patenting every gene, cell line, tissue, organ and organism they can find.
Biotech researchers are combing the planet for plants and animals with rare genetic traits that might have market potential. Most of the prospecting is being carried out by corporate-financed expeditions to rainforests and other traditional centers of genetic diversity. Officials in the less developed nations where these wild things roam accuse the gene prospectors of "biocolonialism."
Once discovered, unique genetic traits are slightly altered, patented and then incorporated into agricultural or pharmaceutical products. Often, these products are sold back to the same regions from which they were taken. Norah Olembo, of the Kenyan Ministry of Science and Technology, rued: "What went freely now comes back with a price tag."
Human blood is the big game of this hunt. But cases like Moore's are rare. As with plants and animals, the most prized human genes belong to the least interbred people. A Stanford University geneticist is heading a plan to collect blood samples from 5,000 linguistically distinct populations. Its detractors have dubbed it the "vampire project."
Base camp for the hunt is the federally funded, $3 billion Human Genome Project, which expects to decode the exact sequence of the 3 billion DNA fragments that make up a human being by 2005. Thousands of human genes already have been discovered. And many have been patented by profiteers such as J. Craig Venter, who quit his job as head of the Genome Mapping Research Team to start a private company that promptly sought patents for the genes he discovered while working on the taxpayers' dime.
Among the genetically engineered plants, animals and human body parts that profit-seeking biotechnologists plan to bring to market soon:
Orange juice grown in vats. Rather than growing an entire tree just to make juice, genetic engineers hope to grow only the cellular fiber found inside the orange.
Farm animals bred in test tubes. A Wisconsin biotech company has created a calf named -- what else? -- Gene. Investors have applied for patents on 200 genetically modified animals -- including pigs, cows and sheep.
Human breasts grown in a lab. A firm called Repro-Genesis will remove cells from a patient's thigh, then place them in a breast-shaped mold of polymer plastic. The cells reproduce until the mold is full. The polymer dissolves and a perfectly shaped, living breast is ready for transplant. The Cambridge, Mass., biotech firm hopes to enter the $375 million-a-year breast business within five years. Kidneys, livers, bladders and other human organs are also being developed by biotech entrepreneurs.
Among those who are financing these high-risk ventures are Gates, Ichan, former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Gates has said that if he had not gone into the computer business, he would have gone into biotech. And he has poured his money into several biotech ventures. They include Icos Corp. and Darwin Molecular, which pioneered the use of computers to search the human genome for new therapies at a faster rate than conventional methods.
Gate's biotech investments represent but a sliver of his $50 billion wealth. Indeed, the entire biotech industry currently accounts for only $13 billion in annual revenues. Gates' $70 million worth of Icos stock makes him the company's largest shareholder.
But his willingness to fund high-risk ventures has won Gates the favor of the industry's star players. Ronald Cape, who started Darwin, is also a director at industry pioneer Chiron Corp. George Rathmann, who runs Icos, also co-founded Amgen, a $2.4 billion-a-year company that is the industry's largest and most profitable. Dr. Leroy Hood, a biologist who Gates lured to Seattle with a $12 million grant to the University of Washing-ton, sits on the boards of Darwin, Amgen and several other well-connected firms. Hood's specialty is developing computerized tools that speed the work of genetic research.
Gates is enthusiastic about the future made possible by the marriage of computers and biotech. On the Microsoft Web site, he muses: "I truly believe that 20 years down the road, (researchers) will be using a combination of information technology and biotechnology to bring about a change in the human condition that will make anything we have done to date seem infinitesimal by comparison." As the world's richest man at only 42 years of age, Gates clearly expects to play a role in shaping that change.
The prospect shakes Gates' critics to the bone. They note that he has always been a monopolist, never an innovator. He now controls 90 percent of the markets for operating systems, word processing and spreadsheet software. What if Gates -- or someone like him -- were to monopolize the patents to 90 percent of the human genome?
Ray Hammond charges Gates with attempting to do just that. The British futurist has accused Gates of surreptitiously gathering genetic research patents as part of a bizarre bid to "master the human operating system." He told a recent anti-Microsoft gathering: "Perhaps only a Roman emperor could have surpassed the influence Gates will have over individual lives in the early 21st century -- if he and his company continue unchecked."
Hammond has offered no proof to back up his claim. (He says he is saving it for a book.) But whether or not his allegation is wholly true, difficult questions remain. If you don't like Microsoft software, you are free to buy your computer code from someone else. But if, like John Moore, you've lost the rights to your own genetic code, where do you turn?;;;
In the same way that Columbus and Vespucci merely placed European flags on continents that had been there all along, the gene hunters are finding "new" pieces of the web of life that already exist. Leading scientists have likened the assembly of the human genome to the turn-of-the-century completion of the Periodic Table of the Elements, which paved the way for 20th-century discoveries in chemistry and physics. The comparison highlights the difference.
"No reasonable person would dare suggest that a scientist who isolated, classified and described the properties of hydrogen, helium or oxygen ought to be granted the exclusive right, for 20 years, to claim the substance as a human invention," Rifkin writes. "The (U.S. Patent Office) has, however, said that the isolation and classification of a gene's properties and purposes is sufficient to claim it as an invention."
And courts are upholding these unlikely patents. Just ask John Moore.
He suspected what Dr. Golde was doing. He refused to sign the consent forms Golde pushed at him. Still, the California Supreme Court upheld a ruling that the cell line was Golde's product, not Moore's property. It was as if an occult hand had reduced Moore's own body into patent No. 4,438,032.
Rifkin has mounted an unusual challenge to the patent process he considers unreasonable. Together with cellular biologist Stuart A. Newman, he has applied for the exclusive rights to mix animal and human cells to create a half-animal, half-human creature. The application identifies human-baboon, human-chimpanzee and human-pig chimeras that could be developed as sources of transplant organs.
Rifkin and Newman do not intend to create such a creature. They merely intend to bring the patent office face-to- face with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits slavery. Among the questions they raise: How much of a man must be human before he is called a man? And, by extension, how much of a man can be owned by another before he is no longer a free man?
The buccaneers of biotech call Rifkin a luddite. They argue that such questions should not be answered by courts or lawmakers, but should be left to science and the free market.
"Fear of clones is just another form of racism," argued Nathan Myhrvold in an article written for the Microsoft-owned web magazine Slate. Myhrvold, who serves as Gates' top technology officer, cast an eerie foreshadow in defense of his biotech-boosting boss:
"What is so special about natural reproduction anyway?" Myhrvold asked. "Cloning is the only predictable way to reproduce, because it creates the identical twin of a known adult. Sexual reproduction is a crap shoot by comparison.
"The most upsetting possibility in human cloning isn't superwarriors or dictators. It's that rich people with big egos will clone themselves. ... So what? Rich and egotistic folks do all sorts of annoying things, and the law is hardly the means with which to try and stop them."