The Culture of Ownership in Medicine

14 08 2009

Did you know that James Macri owns ß-hCG?  Did you know that someone could even own such a thing?  Well, according to US Patent 5,252,489 he does.  More specifically, Dr. Macri owns a patent covering the use of the free beta subunit of hCG in Down syndrome screening, amongst many others.

I have always assumed that any machine used in the lab or any paricular physical material used in our daily operations was invented and patented by someone at some point, but I suppose I had never thought that a test, or a technique could be patented as well (naive resident, folks).

I suppose it makes sense when you think about it.  If someone develops a novel way to do something, it seems right that that person be able to patent that activity so he/she be rewarded for their work, and should not have to worry about another party scooping up that work and profiting from it without putting in the time and effort to develop it.

At the same time, there comes a point where something is so generic or so integral to basic function, that it can’t (or at least shouldn’t be able to) be patented.  I know because I tried to patent ‘Lungs’ as ‘an organ used to exchange atmospheric oxygen across a thin cell layer’ and they rejected my claim.

So, I suppose, the point of discussion is, at what point does something become so integral or generic that it is not patent-able?  You couldn’t patent ‘looking through a microscope at H&E slides to arrive at a diagnosis’ (at least now, anyway (see above image, lol)), but you could certainly patent ‘looking through a microscope at fluorescent labeled antibodies for translocations to arrive at a diagnosis’.  Both are exceedingly vague, but it seems to me that by adding fluorescence to the equation, it grants just enough specificity and contemporary relevance to the process which therefore makes it patent-able, and I am not sure how I feel about that prospect…

On the one hand, patent law was clearly established to spur innovation and protect the inventor’s ideas; that seems obvious and just.  Alternatively, innovation could be, and is stifled by restrictive legislation preventing the use and application of certain inventions on a daily basis.  Given: every established system of laws can be and is bent or abused to some degree, but we, as a society, need to realize when enough is enough.

Some examples of this flagrant abuse can be seen on ‘The Culture of Ownership‘ blog run by Mrs. Molly Wood.  Some recent post include ‘Monster Cable’ suing ‘Monster Mini Golf‘ and ‘Monster Transmission‘ for trademark infringement, as if anyone would confuse over-priced cabling for some place you go on a first date or a means to transport your hot rod from Charlotte to Tucson.  Most recently, an injunction has been filed by i4i against Microsoft, preventing the sale of Microsoft Word, claiming the XML formatting in Office 2007 is proprietary and was not licensed for use.  Certainly, Microsoft, in this last example could be guilty of stealing technology or ideas from this smaller company, but as it turns out, the i4i has no product to show for itself containing the technology in question.  This last example also demonstrates the concept of ‘patent squatting’ in which someone files a patent for an idea that they either do not know how to move to fruition or do not have the means to do so.  “[T]he rights granted by the government do not guarantee that inventors will be able to make, use, or sell the invention. They can merely prevent others from doing so.” (Haddow, 2009).  I *thought* that patents would not be granted to people who had no means of ever producing a meaningful expression of a the contents of their patent, but, clearly, in practice, this does not appear to be the case.

Finally, I have read about instances where companies buy up competing patents in an effort to stiffle competition.  A hypothetical example of this would be if, say, an oil company bought the rights to a type of electric car technology and basically hid the patent on a shelf somewhere, thereby prohibiting the construction of said electric car which would conceivable compete with it in the marketplace.  Is this fair capitalism, or is this abuse?  I suppose the argument could be made either way; I’ll let you decide on which side is ethical or legal.

Now imagine if this disease were spread to medicine or to Pathology specifically.  I feel that it is probably a fair assumption that some or all of these shady practices are, in fact, in play in the field of lab medicine; I guess that, before today, I hadn’t realized exactly to what extent.

Now, with a piqued interest, I will be keeping an eye out for the dissemination of the culture of ownership within medicine and within pathology and I will remind everyone- ‘everything in moderation’.


Haddow J. Patents in Prenatal Screening. Presentation. April 2009.




One response

24 09 2009

I totally agree with you, patents-gone-wild are scary. Is H&E patented? If not, where can I apply?

I guess that’s what happens when you let lawyers run a country.

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