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The Author Speaks

Interview With Harriet A. Washington on 'Deadly Monopolies'

The corporate takeover of our medical future

Q. Why is the patenting of genes and other biological products particularly problematic?

A. When you patent things that come from our body, corporations become our biological landlords. In terms of individual autonomy and freedom, I find it really repugnant. Is it right to take tissues and turn around and charge people for patented entities they need to live? I'm not saying corporations shouldn't be able to charge people — I'm taking issue with the high costs.

Q. What about the high costs of developing new drugs?

A. Most are really marketing costs. Really [pharmaceutical companies] are charging us the amount of money people are willing to pay to stay alive.

Q. What's an example of harm caused by a biological patent?

A. Look at the case of Myriad Genetics. Women who have breast cancer, or are at risk for breast cancer, pay Myriad almost $4,000 for a test to elucidate their risks. It's a lot of money. But the test is not perfect — it will not find every risk. Yet you can't get another test. Myriad holds the patent for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which no researcher can use without getting Myriad's permission, which Myriad tends not to grant.

Q. Is the situation different elsewhere?

A. Canada decided to ignore the patent and flout the law because their health minister said this is too dangerous to women. Some countries take these kinds of stands. In this country, however, we tend to honor patents.

Q. But the Myriad patent is being challenged in U.S. courts. What's happening?

A. The patent was invalidated last year by a federal court. Last month [July 2011], an appeals court reinstated it. It's going to end up in the Supreme Court, if the Supreme Court will hear it.

Q. What have you learned in researching the book that's been most surprising?

A. People are going to be surprised that medical researchers themselves have been prevented from pursuing their interests — like Chris Parish of Australia, who for years was working on a drug for liver cancer. His commercial partner, Progen Pharmaceuticals, shut down the trials. They, of course, own the patent. Here this man had invested 20 years of his life in this badly needed drug. The company had learned other companies were launching a cancer drug at the same time. There would have been too much marketplace competition.

Q. Why do you think so many medical researchers have allowed the profit motive to trump their own values?

A. What choice do they have? The academic system is now inextricably linked to the corporate system.

Q. What have some of the consequences been?

A. Good drugs are being kept from the market. A lot of bad drugs are brought to the market because they're profitable.

Next: Is the FDA a corrupt agency? >>

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