Race and bio-patents don't mix

Posted by Doug Pet August 3, 2011
Biopolitical Times
Jonathan Kahn

Hamline University Law Professor and frequent Biopolitical Times guest contributor Jonathan Kahn has set the standard for tracking problematic overlaps between biotechnology, medicine and social categories of race. This Sunday's Washington Post picks up his vital work in a piece by Rob Stein entitled "Race reemerges in debate over 'personalized medicine'." It draws heavily from Kahn's recent essay in Nature Biotechnology, which examines how the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is requiring some biotech and pharmaceutical applicants to include race in their patent claims. (Kahn also blogged on this recently in Biopolitical Times.)

An example referenced in both articles looks at how a test for colorectal cancer risk was denied a patent since it had only been studied among Hispanic men. Requiring race-specific evidence for patent claims erroneously implies that socially-defined (often "self-identified") racial categories have biologically valid underpinnings. Furthermore, it puts pressure on scientists to reengage long-disproven biological concepts of race.

The Post article sheds light on a tension that is troubling to Kahn and many others - that while claiming that therapies can be "personalized" based on individual genetic differences may mean big bucks for biotech (though past flops should lead us to know better), research and products that ascribe false biological definitions to social categories like race threaten both science and society. Kahn shrewdly notes:

Constructions of race as genetic are not only scientifically flawed, they are socially dangerous, opening the door to new forms of discrimination or the misallocation of scarce resources needed to address real health disparities.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: