Week in Review: May 15

Editorial / by TJ Kelleher /

Gene patents are challenged, Austria pulls out of CERN, the carbon tax stays alive in British Columbia, and scientists discover new importance of larvae to ant colonies.

Illustration: Tyler Lang

BRCAnalysis Brawl

A suit filed May 12 in the Southern District of New York by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City represents the latest attempt to make American intellectual property law less restrictive. At issue are several patents on the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, the infamous “breast cancer” genes, held by Utah-based Myriad Genetics Laboratories. Parties to the suit include pathologists, geneticists—both as members of professional scientific organizations and as individual researchers—and individual patients. Since Myriad holds these patents, it is the only company in the United States allowed to screen patients for variants of the two BRCA genes that are known to greatly increase the likelihood that a woman will develop breast or ovarian cancers; this monopoly means that the company is able to charge $3,600 for each comprehensive scan. Furthermore, the scientists involved in the suit are not able to carry out either clinical or basic research without approval from—and fees paid to—Myriad.

This is not the first rebellion against Myriad’s BRCA patents. European researchers spent seven years disputing the equivalent patents on that continent, which were ultimately limited last autumn; according to one researcher, it was the exorbitant licensing fee, more than the idea of patenting gene sequences or the idea that an individual could restrict the abilities of others to do science, that drove the scientists to resist the patents. 

Indeed, money is at the very bottom of the issue here. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the US Constitution authorizes Congress to protect the work of inventors in order to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.” That can be read to mean that there must be incentives to do research—one must be able to make a living—else science will not happen. Who would dispute that? But that clause also must be read in a more general sense, so that making money alone is not treated as the sole enabler of the progress of science. Myriad Genetics’ BRCA patents enable them to make money, but in the end, the patents describe little worthy of protection: You could teach the biology covered to a room full of high school students and still have 10 minutes until the bell rang for lunch. The ideas embodied in the patent seem the very picture of unpatentable obviousness. Among other things, the patents cover even the very act of comparing two copies of the BRCA genes, from both cancerous and noncancerous tissues in a patient, to see if they are identical—even when using methods for gene assays that are not themselves patented! And, of course, the patents control the sequences of many variants of the genes. A patent on the thing that must be studied for science to progress is inherently an impediment to scientific progress. That may not be what the law says yet, but it’s time it did.

Science in a Time of Economic Cholera

The Australian science community, braced for budget cuts, got a surprise this week when the Australian government announced a 25 percent increase in the federal science budget to approximately US$4 billion, including roughly US$370 million to create space for an extra 50,000 college students by 2013, and more, although some critics, as ScienceInsider reported, worried that too great an emphasis was being placed on infrastructure. Austrian scientists meanwhile were blindsided last Friday when its government decided to pull out of CERN, the organization that built the Large Hadron Collider, after participating for half a century. One may seem good for science, the other bad—although CERN will no doubt survive the departure of the Austrians—but it seems quite likely that both decisions are motivated by the same logic, and that it is likely not what is best for science.

German ScienceBlogger Florian Freistetter and others have responded with petitions to keep Austria in CERN. The trouble, from one perspective, with participating in a venture such as CERN is that the rewards and glory devolve onto a multitude. As scientists in the US are well aware—and as those in Australia seem to be—the surest ways to get a government to spend money on science is to emphasize national economic impacts, the stimulated demand for blue-collar jobs thanks to construction, maintenance, and other tasks, and the long-term rewards of innovation and global economic competitiveness. Such rhetoric could conceivably undermine opportunities for the kind of blue-sky research that particle accelerators represent, and it is deployed at the user’s risk. But it is the language most politicians speak, and the one that voters seem to want to hear. So, if those Austrian physicists want to keep working in Switzerland, it might behoove them to start talking about the industrial applications of the LHC’s technological underpinnings at least as much as they talk about looking for the Higgs boson.

Can Carbon Taxes Turn Environmental Politics on Its Head?

British Columbia’s carbon tax survived an electoral battle this week. Surprisingly enough, however, it was being defended by the center-right Liberal party and opposed by the center-left New Democratic party, which was calling for an easing of the tax, the institution of a cap-and-trade program, and also a wider environmental platform.  As ScienceBlogger James Hyrnyshyn observes, even in 2012, when the BC carbon tax goes up, it will still remain too low to have a major impact on emissions. But it is a beginning. With the law on the books, raising the tax further in the future ought to be easier, and it has a real potential to mature into a tool that can help steer economic activity away from industrial processes that have a negative impact on efforts to combat climate change.

The election coincided with the introduction of a bill in the US House of Representatives to introduce a carbon tax in the United States. Introduced by two Republicans, Bob Inglis of South Carolina and Jeff Flake (perhaps the most libertarian of congressmen) of Arizona, and a Democrat, Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, the bill has yet to garner the attention being lavished on the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. But, as most economists reckon that a carbon tax is the best way to control the emissions of carbon dioxide, it deserves a further look. Aiming to be revenue neutral, the carbon tax would be accompanied by deductions in payroll taxes, thereby providing long-lasting economic stimulus by making employees cheaper to employ. Furthermore, it would send a strong signal—even far ahead of the ultimate maximum tax of $100 per ton of carbon dioxide, proposed to take effect in 2040—that the US has decided that carbon-dioxide–spewing industry needs to become as extinct as the plants that became the coal we now so casually burn. 

The Gut of the Superorganism

A paper by Audrey Dussutour of Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse and Stephen Simpson of the University of Sydney, published in Current Biology this week, revealed the importance of larvae to the communal nutrition of a colony. In Dussutour and Simpson’s experiment, multiple colonies of ants were captured. The larvae were removed from some of them, and all colonies were then fed for 50 days: the diets could have protein to carbohydrate ratios of 3:1, 2:1, 1:1, 1:2, or 1:3. The foragers follow an apparent rule that calls for gathering a certain amount of carbohydrates, regardless of how much protein that brings into the nest. Interestingly, Dussutour and Simpson found that colonies with larvae were better able to compensate for unfavorable nutrient ratios in their food. Protein, while important to insects, will kill them in too-great quantities; in Dussutour and Simpson’s experiment, protein-heavy diets increased larval mortality and reduced the population of the colonies by up to 50 percent when larvae were not present. Ultimately, according to the two biologists, this means that the workers are not fundamental to keeping the colony from poisoning itself with protein. Instead, the larvae—which can seem to be just passive recipients of food—are in fact processing the protein, for their own growth and for feeding in small quantities to adults, and then excreting it. All the workers do is carry the excess away. It’s one more amazing example of how fine the division of labor in a superorganism can be.

Originally published May 15, 2009

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