Genetic engineering and digital technology concept.

The ‘Res Nullius’ Construction of Human Genomic Data

By Donrich Thaldar

No one domain of the law holds exclusive sway over human genomic data. Instead, genomic data have a multidimensional legal nature, meaning that multiple legal domains — including property law, privacy law, contract law, and intellectual property law — are all applicable. This opens the door for different persons to have rights originating in different legal domains with respect to the same genomic data.

To determine who has rights with respect to a particular person’s genomic data, the rules of each relevant legal domain must be applied. The application of these rules to genomic data may be relatively straightforward in some domains, but in property law — which is relevant in determining ownership of genomic data — it is often more complicated. Only a handful of jurisdictions have specifically legislated on the ownership of genomic data. In the absence of such specific legislation that provides who owns genomic data, general property law rules must be applied. (In common law legal systems, and some mixed legal systems where legislation is absent, this would entail resorting to the jurisdiction’s common law.) However, given the novelty of applying property law rules to genomic data, it is not always obvious which of the general rules would apply. In this post, I will share some of my research group’s thinking in this regard. Although our thinking is based in South African law, many of the principles are shared with other legal systems.

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Blue biohazard sign in front of columns of binary code.

The International Weaponization of Health Data

By Matthew Chun

International collaboration through the sharing of health data is crucial for advancing human health. But it also comes with risks — risks that countries around the world seem increasingly unwilling to take.

On the one hand, the international sharing of health-related data sets has paved the way for important advances such as mapping the human genome, tracking global health outcomes, and fighting the rise of multidrug-resistant superbugs. On the other hand, it can pose serious risks for a nation’s citizens, including re-identification, exploitation of genetic vulnerabilities by foreign parties, and unauthorized data usage. As countries aim to strike a difficult balance between furthering research and protecting national interests, recent trends indicate a shift toward tighter controls that could chill international collaborations.

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microscope for in vitro fertilization process close up. . Equipment on laboratory of Fertilization, IVF.

Building a Progressive Assisted Reproductive Technology Law in South Africa

By Donrich Thaldar

In July 2022, a legal earthquake hit the South African fertility healthcare sector: The Pretoria High Court struck out the statutory ban on non-medical preimplantation sex selection.

Preimplantation sex selection for non-medical reasons is controversial around the globe, and explicitly banned in several prominent countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom. However, in most countries, such as the United States, it is not regulated through statute. How did South African law arrive at this dramatic juncture?

In South Africa, over the course of the past decade, a steady stream of judicial decisions on assisted reproductive technology (ART) built a progressive body of case law (notwithstanding one noteworthy exception).

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Cell culture.

A New Theory for Gene Ownership

By James Toomey

The story of Henrietta Lacks is surely among the most famous in the history of bioethics, and its facts are well-known. Ms. Lacks sought treatment for cervical cancer. After conducting a biopsy on her tumor, her doctors learned that her cancer cells reproduced uniquely effectively. Without her knowledge or consent, her doctors derived from the cells the HeLa cell line — the world’s first immortal human cell line, worth billions and a driver of the biotechnology revolution. Lacks died in poverty.

No doubt her doctors’ behavior was not consistent with today’s standards of informed consent. But another question has remained more persistently challenging — did the doctors steal something from Lacks? Did she own the cells of her tumor? Or, perhaps more precisely, because few argue that HeLa is really the same thing as Lacks’s tumor cells, did she own the genetic information contained in her tumor?

In a new paper, Property’s Boundaries (forthcoming in the Virginia Law Review, March 2023), I develop a theory of what can and cannot be owned to answer these kinds of questions — pervasive in bioethics, from debates about ownership of organs to embryos. My conclusion, in short, is that because the essence of the idea of ownership is a relationship of absolute control, anything that can be the subject of human control can, in principle, be owned. But that which we cannot control we cannot own. From this perspective, Henrietta Lacks owned the cells of her tumor, and the tumor itself. But the genetic information within them — facts about the universe subject to no human control — simply cannot be owned, by her or anyone else.

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concept illustration of genes in DNA.

A Response to ‘Another Legislative Attempt to Revive Gene Patenting’

By Emily Michiko Morris

Professor Jorge Contreras’ commentary on the Patent Eligibility Restoration Act of 2022 objects to Senator Thom Tillis’ recently introduced bill. Specifically, he argues that proposed inclusion of isolated and purified human genes and other naturally occurring substances as patent eligible subject matter is unnecessary and would both stymie research and obstruct access to medicine. But the truth is these criticisms rely mostly on narrative and anecdote rather than rigorous empirical evidence. (Professor Contreras has written an article acknowledging the many narratives behind the gene patenting debate: see Narratives of Gene Patenting, 43 Fla. St. U. L. Rev. 1133 (2016)).

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graphic of test tube with double helix inside it

Another Legislative Attempt to Revive Gene Patenting

By Jorge Contreras

In its unanimous 2013 decision in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics (569 U.S. 576) the U.S. Supreme Court held that naturally occurring genomic sequences are not eligible for patent protection.  Not surprisingly, some representatives of the biotechnology industry, and many patent lawyers, reacted negatively to the decision, and have steadily lobbied Congress to restore patent protection for isolated and purified genomic sequences.  On August 2, 2022, Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) accommodated them with the Patent Eligibility Restoration Act of 2022, a bill that, if enacted into law, would reverse the Myriad decision and a decade of subsequent legal developments. Such a reversal would have serious implications not only for access to healthcare, but also the ability to respond rapidly and effectively to new viral outbreaks.

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Colorful lottery balls in a rotating bingo machine.

Equalizing the Genetic Lottery?

By James Toomey

Kathryn Paige Harden’s The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality is a thoughtful, thorough, and well-written book about the compatibility of behavioral genetics with progressive ideology. Weaving together her own fascinating work in genetics with Rawlsian political philosophy, Harden’s book is necessary reading for anyone interested in inheritance or politics — which, I suppose, is everyone.

The basic argument of the book is that the so-called First Law of Behavioral Genetics is correct — everything is heritable. Harden supports this claim with a wealth of research in genetics over the past few decades, with an emphasis on her own contributions (“within a group of children who are all in school, nearly all of the differences in general [executive function] are estimated to be due to the genetic differences between them”). More importantly, Harden does not think this fact has the implications for normative politics that many, particularly on the left, worry it does. The fact that some genetic profiles cause higher general intelligence — or anything else — does not mean those who have them are better or more deserving of society’s bounty and social prestige. We can, and should, adopt “anti-eugenic” policies designed to make better as much as possible the lives of the genetically “unluckiest.”

Accepting Harden’s descriptive premises, I find her political theory basically right. But the book elides a crucial distinction in left-leaning political thought that, I think, misses something about why so many on the left find the prospect of the heritability of mental characteristics so troubling, and which perhaps diminishes the book’s ability to persuade its target audience (which, frankly, is not me, having been already convinced on much of this by The Blank Slate).

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BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 29, 2019: NIH NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH sign emblem seal on gateway center entrance building at NIH campus. The NIH is the US's medical research agency.

Will NIH Learn from Myriad when Settling Its mRNA Inventorship Dispute with Moderna?

By Jorge L. Contreras

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is currently embroiled in a dispute over the ownership of patent rights to Moderna’s flagship mRNA COVID-19 vaccine (mRNA-1273).

The NIH, which funded much of Moderna’s research on the COVID-19 vaccine, should be assertive in exerting control over the results of this taxpayer-funded research. Failing to do so would be a missed opportunity for the public sector to have a say in the distribution and pricing of this critical medical technology.

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Concept illustration of DNA and genes.

The Civil Rights Challenge to Gene Patenting

By Jorge L. Contreras

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched a unique lawsuit against Myriad Genetics, challenging fifteen claims of seven patents covering various aspects of the BRCA1/2 genes and their use in diagnosing risk for breast and ovarian cancer. In mounting this case, the ACLU assembled a coalition of lawyers, scientists, counselors, patients and advocates in an unprecedented challenge not only to one company’s patents, but the entire practice of gene patenting in America. And, against the odds, they won. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics that naturally occurring DNA sequences are not patentable, a ruling that has had repercussions throughout the scientific community and the biotechnology industry.

In The Genome Defense: Inside the Epic Legal Battle to Determine Who Owns Your DNA (New York: Hachette/Algonquin, 2021), I describe the long road that led to this unlikely Supreme Court victory. It began in 2003 when the ACLU hired its first science advisor, a Berkeley-based cellist and non-profit organizer named Tania Simoncelli. At the ACLU, Simoncelli’s job was to identify science-related issues that the ACLU could do something about, from DNA fingerprinting to functional MRI brain imaging. A couple of years into the role, Simoncelli mentioned gene patenting to Chris Hansen, a veteran ACLU litigator who had been involved in cases covering mental health to school desegregation to online porn. At first, Hansen didn’t believe her. How could a company patent something inside the human body? But Simoncelli persisted, showing him articles and statistics demonstrating that, by 2005, more than 20% of the human genome was covered by patents. The realization led to Hansen’s oft-quoted exclamation, “Who can we sue?”

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Illustration of a man and a woman standing in front of a DNA helix

A Proposal for Localized Review to Safeguard Genetic Database Privacy

By Robert I. Field, Anthony W. Orlando, and Arnold J. Rosoff

Large genetic databases pose well-known privacy risks. Unauthorized disclosure of an individual’s data can lead to discrimination, public embarrassment, and unwanted revelation of family secrets. Data leaks are of increasing concern as technology for reidentifying anonymous genomes continues to advance.

Yet, with the exception of California and Virginia, state legislative attempts to protect data privacy, most recently in Florida, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, have failed to garner widespread support. Political resistance is particularly stiff with respect to a private right of action. Therefore, we propose a federal regulatory approach, which we describe below.

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