Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Today's BIG science story

Has CERN done a major PR job with the LHC or what? I mean, they produced a rap video about the accelerator, which struck the media right in the science-addled heart. Now, just because the accelerator is working (for the moment) the way it's supposed to, every outlet around the globe is covering this like it's a big deal. Early this morning when I couldn't sleep I heard it on BBC radio,then NPR, then read about it in the NY Times, and it was even on the Huffington Post. And they haven't even discovered anything yet!

And even if they do discover the Higgs boson, it will be kind of anticlimactic, after all this time. (The Higgs mechanism was proposed in 1964. It's (unfortunately) called the "God particle," which is why I think the media is really interested in it, but I bet you less than 1 in 10,000 people can explain its meaning.) Personally I hope they don't find it and SU(3) x SU(2) x U(1) [that is to say, QCD plus the theory of the weak force plus QED) has all be reexamined. THAT would be exciting.

In any case, today's major science story has nothing to do with CERN but with yesterday's court ruling from a US District Judge in New York City that two prominent breast cancer genes may not be patented. Science magazine covers it here.

It's always struck me as absurd, as it has many people, that anyone could patent a gene. It's like trying to patent hydrogen merely because you've shown how it can be produced in a laboratory. Science:
If the New York ruling is upheld on appeal, experts say, hundreds or even thousands of human gene patents could be put in limbo.
That would be a very good thing. Unfortunately, as a huge amount of money is at stake here this will probably eventually go to the Supreme Court, and today's corporate-favoring court would probably overrule this. In any case, here's the view of an expert:
Robert Cook-Deegan, an ethicist, historian, and expert on gene patenting at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, says that the New York ruling on the BRCA patents is a "bombshell." It could undercut certain gene patents that seek to claim DNA sequences themselves as an invention rather than as part of a process. He adds, however, that "it will take a while to figure out what it means." He notes that the judge's decision directly attacks part of the subtle legal reasoning behind such patents—the notion that intellectual property attaches only to "isolated" DNA sequence, which is a human invention, and not to the DNA in genes that's considered a product of nature (even though the sequences are identical).
We are in the bare beginnings of the genomic revolution, and the world a century from now (if it exists) will view our current state of knowledge as we do the Bohr atom. Unless patents on genes and other natural objects are rescinded, we're never going to get to the point where high school students are sequencing genomes in their bedrooms.


rhhardin said...

The court just says what the law seems to say.

Congress makes the law, in this case badly.

rhhardin said...

There's a case that there should be no patents at all

Here is a nice podcast arguing the matter.