Genes from Africa: The Colonisation of Human DNA
by Edward Hammond and Mariam Mayet, February 2009
On the 26th of October 2007, the University of Maryland applied to the US PTO (US 20080220429) for a patent over three genetic variations isolated from blood samples collected from communities in Kenya, Tanzania and the Sudan, following the comparison of the DNA of 43 different communities in these three countries by the university’s ‘inventors’ Dr Sarah A Tishkoff and Floyd Allan Reed.
How is it indeed possible for Dr Tishkoff to stake a legal claim on the natural genetic resources of Africans, which will not only allow exclusive rights to such resources, but also enable her to proﬁt from future medical applications? It is indeed possible, because US patent law extends patent protection to life forms. Indeed, the PTO has granted patents for newly created micro-organisms, living animals, and for human tissues and genes, breaking the long-standing policy that animate life forms were not patentable. The National Institutes of Health, and others, have secured patent rights for fragmented gene sequences, many with unknown function and physical signiﬁcance. This trend has enabled research institutions and corporations to secure patents for almost 5% of the entire human genome.
In this paper, we present our research regarding the Tishkoff related patent application and provide additional information regarding Tishkoff’s incursion into Africa. We also raise some fundamental social and ethical questions. We trust that this work will make a meaningful contribution to future campaigns to stop the exploitation of African genetic resources.