Human Genome Project
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The Human Genome Project was a 13-year long project (1990-2003) with the goal of mapping out and understanding the entirety of the human genetic code. The project is reported to have cost the US approximately $3 billion, or about a dollar per base pair.
As a result of the sequencing of human DNA the purpose and effects of specific genes is quickly being discovered. The unprecedented amount of information and control this promises to give us over our own state of being has raised many new ethical concerns, and not all are easily addressed.
We now have the ability to use gene testing to screen people, and even embryos, for inherited diseases with a high degree of accuracy. Embryonic gene testing is already done in many cases of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), especially when a couple is at high risk of having children with certain disorders. Performing gene testing gives such couples the highest chance of having a healthy child.
Some groups (e.g., fundamentalist Christians) argue against the very idea of embryonic gene testing on the basis that abortions will be performed as a result of the information gained. This is of course true, as most would opt not to carry to term an embryo which, for example, exhibited the genetic markers for a debilitating disease that promised death in early childhood. However, to frame embryonic gene testing only in terms of abortion is disingenuous, as the utility is obvious for the application of future treatments for disease such as gene therapy early in development.
The United States Patent Office (USPTO) has already issued a few patents for gene fragments, including fragments in the human genome. This is done after identifying a sequence and determining its purpose as well as usefulness. This kind of patent allows companies to exercise control over use of the gene in a commercial process or product. In the case of a human this could include diagnosis of or therapy for a disease.
A gene patent does not in any way give control over an aspect of humans or humanity to the company holding it, nor does it at all limit or require licensing of the natural expression of the gene. The primary valid concern regarding gene patents is what impact they have on continuing genetic research.