The Future of Biohacking in the Age of Patent Trolls

Grindhouse Wetware member Tim Cannon hooks his cybernetic implant up to his tablet. Screenshot via

Grindhouse Wetware member Tim Cannon hooks his cybernetic implant up to his tablet. Screenshot via YouTube.


We stand at a strange moment in human history, when lawyers and corporations wage war amongst each other over one question: who owns your body? Off to the side, biohackers—the freaks, geeks, rebels, and punks who do biotechnology experiments in garages and basements—must decide whether to abide by the outcomes. Maybe you’ve heard about this argument in the context of the Myriad Genetics Supreme Court case; that corporation had patented a part of the natural human genome, the “breast cancer gene.” Some versions of the gene make you more likely to get breast and ovarian cancer. Because Myriad figured out the risk associations, they filed a patent… on the gene itself. In every human. If you checked to see which version of the gene you had, you had to pay them a licensing fee. The court unanimously agreed that Myriad can’t own some part of our genetic heritage, just because they “discovered” it. It’s all very Christopher Columbus (or Eddie Izzard). In 2012, the court heard another case that may have more immediate ramifications for the average person in a doctor’s office. In Mayo v. Prometheus, a company claimed it owned the rights for you to check how their drug affected your natural metabolite levels and then adjust your dosage accordingly. It wasn’t a special diagnostic test, and doctors already knew how to measure the chemicals in your blood. The question was whether knowing to adjust your dose was patentable. The Supreme Court—also unanimously—nixed the patent. These decisions threw the world of biomedical patents into chaos. There are likely hundreds of patents affected, but it’s incredibly difficult to figure out which ones. Robert Cook-Deegan is the director of the Institute of Genome Ethics, Law, and Policy at Duke University. “I was just talking to a bunch of patent lawyers, and almost all of them were quite certain what the patent law is, but they don’t agree what it is,” he said, during a conversation about the Myriad and Prometheus cases. “You’ll have one patent lawyer say, this is totally valid. And another patent lawyer will say, no no no, this is invalid. And they’ll have very good case law rationales for why they believe what they believe, and they’re very sure of it.”

Read the rest at The Awl. 

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