What happens when we patent life?

Action Speaks
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 26, 2012

What happens when we patent life?

Action Speaks, the always entertaining panel discussion series at Providence art space AS220, is poised to launch its Fall 2012 season, "Private Rights and Public Fights," on October 3.

The weekly chats — eight in all — will focus on the ever-blurring line between the public and the private. And as usual, moderator Marc Levitt will use an underappreciated date in American history as a jumping-off point for discussion.

The first installment in the new season: "1980: Chakrabarty v. Diamond."

In the 1970s, the public was deeply uneasy about the emerging field of genetic engineering and the courts had not yet settled the question of whether living organisms were patentable under the law.

Enter Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, a General Electric engineer who was seeking a patent on a bacterium designed to break down crude oil. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision in Chakrabarty v. Diamond, ruled that man-made microorganisms are, indeed, patentable.

It was a watershed moment for biotech, which exploded in the aftermath of the decision — producing remarkable innovations and a host of sticky ethical questions.

Chakrabarty, now a professor at the University of Illinois — Chicago College of Medicine, will appear on the Action Speaks panel. So will author and activist David Bollier and Harvard Law School professor Glenn Cohen, who is co-director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics.

The panel, set for 5:30 pm at AS220, 115 Empire Street, Providence, is free and open to the public. The Phoenix, a sponsor of the Action Speaks series, caught up with Cohen for a Q&A via email. The interview is edited and condensed.

AS BIOTECH EXPANDS ITS REACH, ARE THERE ANY AGREED UPON, ETHICAL BRIGHT LINES BEYOND WHICH IT SHOULD NOT GO? I think most bioethicists worry the most about work that would mix human and animal features at the neuronal level — creating something with a human-like intelligence in the body of an elephant, for example. One of the more difficult questions that raises is whether this counts as "enhancing an animal," "diminishing a human," or something else entirely. Also there is a difficult question as to what kinds of lives are worth living — [whether] being created in such a state would be better than not being created. For practical reasons, we are also quite concerned about creating new entities with self-replicatory potentials, because they may "get loose" with unpredictable concerns for the ecosystem.

REGENERATIVE MEDICINE — REGENERATING ORGANS AND LIMBS FROM ONE'S OWN CELLS — HAS RECEIVED A LOT OF ATTENTION LATELY. ITS POTENTIAL FOR REPAIRING INJURED SOLDIERS IS PARTICULARLY APPEALING. BUT DOES THAT CHANGE THE ETHICS OF WAR? DOES IT MAKE WAR MORE ACCEPTABLE? To the extent the process of losing a limb is still horrifying, disfiguring, disruptive, painful, I continue to think the same issues for conventional warfare will remain, and the same set of rules (know as International Humanitarian Law) will govern.

[But] anything you do that reduces the cost of war to your people thereby reduces one major deterrent to going to war. There have been similar concerns expressed as to the increasing robotification of war and drones, although the costs there may themselves be a deterrent in a financial sense.

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