Gene patenting has captured the headlines for the past four years, thanks in large part to the lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) brought against Myriad Genetics for the patents on the breast cancer genes, BRCA 1 and 2. Despite their recent celebrity, human gene patents have been granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for over thirty years. The commodification of the human body is not all that recent: one might be tempted to argue that gene patenting is the inevitable next step in the com-modification of natural processes and products. Edward Yoxen dates the origins of the technological capitalization of life back to the 1920s (Yoxen 1981; Gaudillière 2008). Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite maintain that, “The patenting of genes […] was the culmination of a business approach that had been evolving in the chemical, agricultural, seed and pharmaceutical sectors for all of the 20th century” (Drahos and Braithwaite 2002, p. 158). However, it seems to me the patenting of genes raises critical concerns, which distinguish it from the patenting of other biological entities, such as the inability to patent around the gene and the corresponding ability potentially to block downstream research on diagnostics and therapeutics, resulting in the exorbitant cost of a number of genetic tests, as this volume addresses.
Corporate capitalism and biotechnology are undoubtedly shaping certain aspects of twenty-first century America. For example, as Hannah Landecker has argued, “[c]ultured cells … function within well-established systems of labor and exchange, they are normalized in and by these systems; yet they also represent profound and recent change to a new state of being, as routine tools, alienable commodities, and sites of production” (Landecker 2007, p. 3). The means of production in biocapitalism are the legal and technical tools—in this case intellectual property law, which result in the commodification of [End Page 1] the so-called subjects of labor—natural entities and raw materials. These tools structure the social relationships of those in the biotech world. It is the socioeconomic form generated by private enterprise—with the assistance of a laissez-faire government, which only benefits members of that group. Those whose DNA sequences have been patented are truly alienated from the means of production. They do not share in the governance of biomedical research, nor do they reap the profits.
The contemporary fusion of intellectual property rights and bodily knowledge has become incredibly powerful in an era when the federal government has enabled corporate capitalism to be an ever-increasing source of knowledge production in the biological sciences. Such a stance to increase the power of the private sector is symptomatic of the neoliberalism typical of late twentieth-century America: allow the market to regulate itself. And the biotech sector owes much to the rise of neoliberalism (Cooper 2008, p. 19). Perhaps legal scholar Dorothy Roberts sums it up best when discussing patients and customers who donate their DNA.
There is no democratic process to make sure the research truly serves the public interest and improves the lives of people throughout our society. More fundamentally, its focus is as atomistic as can be, right down to each individual’s genetic code. Individuals may merge where their genotypes intersect, but not as whole, self-determining people who join together as a collective based on shared values to change society for the better. The central objective of dominating one’s individual life at the molecular level is the opposite of working in solidarity to eliminate unjust social structures like race.(Roberts 2011, p. 225)
Neoliberal capitalism does after all have a penchant for the individual at the expense of the collective. Unlike older forms of capitalism, which were based on the economy of mass-produced commodities, biocapitalism relies more upon financial investment, the promise of financial reward, and information (Styhre and Sundgren 2011, p. 55). According to political economists Michel Aglietta and Régis Breton, financial liberalization has given rise to aunique “finance dominated regime of accumulation” whereby the evaluation of the promise of future profits determine market prices (Cooper 2008, p. 23; Aglietta and Breton 2001, pp. 433...