View Full Version : How Firms are Taking Over Life Itself-Medical Ethicist Harriet Washington

11-01-2011, 12:56 AM
One of the major themes raised by the Occupy movement is the increasing power of large corporations over more and more aspects of our lives. We spend the hour looking into the issue of the corporate control of life itself. Our guest, Harriet Washington, is a medical ethicist and has just published a book that examines the extent to which what she calls the medical-industrial complex has come to control human life. In the past 30 years, more than 40,000 patents have been granted on genes alone—many more patents are pending. Washington argues that the biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies patenting these genes are more concerned with profit than with the health or medical needs of patients. Her new book is called "Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself—And the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future." [VIDEO (http://www.democracynow.org/2011/10/31/deadly_monopolies_medical_ethicist_harriet_washing ton)]

AMY GOODMAN: One of the major themes that’s been raised in the Occupy movements across the country and the world is the increasing power of large corporations over more and more aspects of our lives. Well, today we’re going to look at the issue of the corporate control of life itself.

Our guest, medical ethicist Harriet Washington. She has just published a book that examines the extent to which what she calls the medical-industrial complex has come to control human life. In the past 30 years, more than 40,000 patents have been granted on genes alone. More patents are pending. Washington argues that the biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies patenting these genes are more concerned with profit than with the health or medical needs of patients.

Harriet Washington’s new book is called Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself—And the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future. She is also the author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

Harry Washington, welcome back to Democracy Now!

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Thank you so much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Very good to be here again.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you take on this book?

HARRIET WASHINGTON: I was really disturbed not only by the displacement of the traditional, more altruistic values of medical research, but also by the lack of transparency with which corporations have managed to co-opt not only research itself, but also the generation of new cures and the pricing of drugs.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote Medical Apartheid before this. How did Deadly Monopolies come out of your previous research?

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Interestingly enough, it didn’t come out of it. I was always concerned both about medical research with African Americans and medical research with unconsenting Americans and duplicitous research, and couldn’t combine them all in one huge monster book, so after I did Medical Apartheid, I turned my attention to the issues that affect all of us, not just African Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the story of John Moore.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: John Moore, an iconic story. He developed hairy-cell leukemia, and he was told by his doctor, Dr. David Golde, that he needed surgery to save his life, which he underwent. His 22-pound spleen was taken out, and after that, Golde summoned Moore periodically, all the way from Alaska to L.A., for periodic tests. And Golde would do samples of his blood, his semen.

AMY GOODMAN: Golde, his doctor.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Right, right, his doctor. And this was all in order to make sure there was no recurrence of the cancer. So Moore was told. Actually, without Moore’s knowledge, Golde had taken a patent out on Moore’s spleen and the tissues emanating from it, and with that patent, had designed a huge laboratory, with the backing of Sandoz Corporation. And he was actually—

AMY GOODMAN: Sandoz, a pharmaceutical company.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Exactly. So he was actually planning to market the products of John Moore’s body, and John Moore was none the wiser, until he finally consulted a lawyer, who found the patent and found the laboratory.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was Golde?


AMY GOODMAN: Who was the doctor?

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Oh, the doctor was a blood specialist in L.A.

AMY GOODMAN: So he owns the patent to John Moore’s cells?

HARRIET WASHINGTON: He and the university, jointly, held the patent. And with that patent, they had a contract with Sandoz worth $3 million. But John Moore never knew of it.

AMY GOODMAN: How did he learn of it? How did he even seek out whether there was a patent on his own body?

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Golde became belatedly cautious and was pressuring Moore to sign an additional, you know, consent form to give Golde total control over Moore’s discarded, worthless tissues. And Moore was a bit wary. He went to a lawyer, who immediately found the patent and discovered what had been done and that the tissues were not at all worthless, of course.

AMY GOODMAN: What role does the university play in this?

HARRIET WASHINGTON: The university is essentially the patent holder, very often, and it often sells and licenses those patents to private corporations, as this university was going to do to Sandoz. So the university stands to make a great deal of money by selling and licensing patents emanating from our bodies and emanating from molecules that were developed with tax dollars, our tax dollars.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about these relationships between universities and private corporations.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: They’re very close. In fact, now, I believe, very often, universities have come to look like arms of corporations. They’ve adopted their models. They’ve adopted their culture. Now it is the patent, not the patient, that’s at the center of medical research. And it’s profit and patent that is motivating decisions that universities make, just as always dictated the behavior of corporations.

AMY GOODMAN: Harriet Washington, you have a chapter in your book called "A Traffic in Tissues."


AMY GOODMAN: You were just talking about John Moore’s tissues. Talk further, in a global way, about this.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Well, John Moore—what happened to John Moore happened because his tissues were unusually valuable. But today, all of us, with normal tissues, are in danger of having the same fate, because large volumes of normal tissues are also valuable. And now, when we go into surgery in many hospitals, we’re forced to sign—no, we’re asked to sign consent forms, yielding control of our tissues to a private corporation.

AMY GOODMAN: What is that corporation?

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Ardais Corporation is a major one. If you go to—

AMY GOODMAN: Say it again.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Ardais, A-R-D-A-I-S. If you go to Harvard University hospitals, Duke University hospitals, that’s who ends up with your tissues.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do they do with them?

HARRIET WASHINGTON: And many patients don’t know that. Well, they’re very valuable. They can use them to make new drugs, to test new drugs. They have a great deal of value, especially many, many tissues for which they’ve paid a very low or nominal fee.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about this traffic in tissues, where your tissues can end up.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: A variety of places. They can end up in laboratories that are testing drugs. They can end up in laboratories that are basically looking for medically important molecules. If they find that tissues secrete a certain cytokine, for example, they can sort of farm them out. Large volumes of these tissues are extraordinarily valuable in almost sphere of medicine and medical research. And they are being taken from us, very often—well, usually, without our knowledge.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Bayh-Dole Act?

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Yeah, the Bayh-Dole Act was passed in 1980. Birch Bayh and Bob Dole jointly decided to, you know, write a bill that would allow universities for the first time to legally license and sell the products of research to private corporations. That’s where all this paradigm shift actually began, in 1980, with the Bayh-Dole Act.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the significance, the effect of this, why you see this as a turning point.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: This is why universities can actually sell products of their research to private corporations. They were banned from doing that beforehand. Also in 1980, the Chakrabarty case allowed living things to be patented. So taking—these two things, taken together, totally transformed medical research.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that case.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: That case was by Ananda Chakrabarty, was a scientist who wanted to—

AMY GOODMAN: And where was he based?

HARRIET WASHINGTON: He was based at General Electric in Syracuse. He wanted to find a way to turn—create oil-eating bacteria. And he did a lot of innovation, a lot of engineering, and he finally came up with them. So when he applied for a patent, he was first rejected. They said, "It’s a living thing. We can’t patent it. It’s a product of nature." But eventually, Supreme Court decided, yes, you can. And that ruling was taken very widely—very widely—to say that living things can be patented. And so, now, every day, we have things like genes that are patented because of the Chakrabarty decision in 1980.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to Harriet Washington, medical ethicist, author of Deadly Monopolies. Harriet Washington is our guest. Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself—And the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future. Among other issues we’ll talk about is what she calls "biocolonialism." We’ll also talk about the story of Henrietta Lacks. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Harriet Washington. Harriet Washington is the author of Medical Apartheid. She won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2007, also the American Library Association Black Caucus Nonfiction Award. She has been a fellow in medical ethics at Harvard Medical School, a senior research scholar at the National Center for Bioethics at Tuskegee University, a fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a recipient of a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. Her latest book is called Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself—And the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future.

Talk about the famous story of Henrietta Lacks. I say "famous," but I daresay most people in this country have probably never heard of her.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Right. Well, luckily, fortunately, more people know of her now than they had in the mid-’90s, when I first learned of her. She was a 31-year-old Baltimore housewife, an African-American housewife, who developed uterine cancer and went to Johns Hopkins for treatment. There, she encountered George Gey, who was a physician who was bent on creating cell lines and was looking for a very long-lived cell line. A cell line is a community of cells. It is very, very useful for medical research. On it, you can safely test many medications and procedures, instead of using a human being. So, he was looking for cells that would live a long time, but the cells would die very quickly, totally. They took cells from Henrietta Lacks, and they never died. They continued to divide.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain again who Henrietta was.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black Baltimore housewife whose cells had an unusual property. They’re called "immortal." And they have been living for 60 years now. So, when George Gey found her cells, it was a goldmine for him. It’s exactly what he had been looking for. And with her cells, the cell line coming from it, there were numerous medical advances. I spoke with Dr. Victor McKusick of Johns Hopkins before he passed away, and he told me that—when I asked him, "How many advances were these cells responsible for?" he said, "In the aggregate, they’re too numerous to count." But one really important advance was the polio vaccine. It could not have been perfected without the HeLa cells. So her cells were—

AMY GOODMAN: HeLa, Henrietta Lacks.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: HeLa, Henrietta Lacks, H-E, yeah. So the—


HARRIET WASHINGTON: H-E-L-A, right. So cells are immensely important for American medicine. And yet, Henrietta Lacks herself had died without ever knowing her cells had been taken. Her husband had refused permission to take the cells, but Dr. Gey took them anyway. And her children and family had no idea that she was this important benefactor to American medicine. Doctors would descend on her family, the Lacks family, periodically, just as with John Moore, looking for more tissues, for more blood. But they told the family, "We want to make sure that you don’t have the same cancer your mother died from" — essentially, the same lie that John Moore had been told. Really, they were using the cells and tissues to make their very important scientific tests. So that was Henrietta Lacks.

AMY GOODMAN: That story was also made famous by Rebecca Skloot, who wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Yes, Rebecca is a friend of mine, I’m proud to say. We’re in the same writing group. And it’s a wonderful book. It’s a wonderful thing Rebecca has done, making Henrietta’s story known to so many people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Henrietta Lacks’ cell line has been so critical for so much research.


AMY GOODMAN: What about how much money it has made?

HARRIET WASHINGTON: No one wants to talk about that. Typically, when I talked to researchers about that, they said, "Oh, well, it was never bought and sold." But it was. It was bought and sold for like $200 per sample. But it was never patented. Because it wasn’t patented, it could be sold for these low fees, nominal fees. But we have to remember that there were thousands, maybe a billion, transactions. So nobody will give an accounting, but it certainly generated a lot of money just from the sale of the cells, and then the advances themselves. Who can put a price on the polio vaccine? So, they are priceless, literally.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet, her family, many members, cannot even afford health insurance.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Never saw a penny. However, when I talked to her family many times in the '90s, the money did not concern them as much as the fact that they knew that their mother was a medical benefactor and she had never gotten her due. People didn't know about her, didn’t know about this.

AMY GOODMAN: Harriet Washington, talk about the price of drugs.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Well, the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t deny that it charges high prices for our drugs. And, of course, it can’t deny that: we all know this, although insurance hides the true costs from a lot of us. But what it says is that we have to charge high prices because it costs from $800 million to $2 billion to develop every new drug. So we have to charge high prices to recoup our research and development costs and also to make sure that the money is there for the next development, the next innovation.

Well, it’s not true. There are many, many flaws and outright falsehoods feeding this argument. I did a thorough analysis in the book, with the help of really good work by Merrill Goozner, an economist. And basically, what they did was they only looked at not a wide spectrum of our drugs in making this figure. They looked at a very narrow swathe of drugs that are extraordinarily rare and expensive. So, if they had looked a more narrow swathe of drugs, they would come up with a figure like $100 million. As Merrill Goozner said, it’s not chump change, but it’s not $800 million either, it’s not $2 billion. Also, a lot of the innovation is fueled by government support of research. And who pays for government support of research? You and I do with our tax dollars. So, it’s almost entirely a fiction.

And this—you know, this claim that drugs cost so much to develop is only a rationale for them being able to charge high prices. The real reason our drugs cost so much is because our government allows these companies to charge what Americans are able and willing to pay to stay alive. It’s no accident that the most expensive drugs are for the most serious diseases.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union announced it would ask the Supreme Court to rule on a patent by Myriad Genetics, a company based in Utah that deals with gene analysis. The longstanding and controversial case has been moving up from the lower courts since 2009, when it was first filed. The case involves patents on two genes that can have mutations linked to breast, ovarian and prostate cancers. I want to play a clip of the CEO of the company who has patented the genes: Peter Meldrum of Myriad Genetics. In a 2010 interview, he explained his position on the ACLU case.

PETER MELDRUM: The ACLU believes very strongly that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office should not grant patents to companies like Myriad Genetics on genes. Genes are a product of nature. Myriad didn’t invent the gene. We didn’t create the gene. But we did discover what the gene did and how you could use that medically to benefit patients. There’s a lot of case law, including a U.S. Supreme Court case, that’s upheld the patenting of genes. And in fact, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted over 3,000 gene patents to numerous companies. The ACLU, though, disagrees with that, and so they have filed a lawsuit against Myriad to try to overturn gene patents. Myriad is going to defend that lawsuit very aggressively.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Peter Meldrum, the CEO of Myriad Genetics. In the same interview, he explains the market potential of hereditary breast cancer research.

PETER MELDRUM: There are about 156 million women in the United States. And according to published studies, about four percent of those have an appropriate family history such that they would be at risk for hereditary breast cancer testing. So, that represents about 6.5 million women in the United States. Obviously, it will take us time to penetrate that market, but the BRACAnalysis test, which sells for $3,120, that represents almost a $20 billion market value for that segment. It is a prevalence market; it’s not an incidence market. So you have to make an assumption as to how quickly we can penetrate that market. We believe we can penetrate that market in 30 years or under. And so, dividing $20 million by 30 years gives us over a $600 million annual market opportunity for just the BRACAnalysis product alone.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Peter Meldrum, CEO of Myriad Genetics. Explain what Mr. Meldrum is referring to.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: He’s talking about the fact that Myriad, a private corporation, holds seven patents on the genes associated with high familial risk of breast cancer. This is exactly the sort of problem that we’re facing today. A corporation owns the patent, and what does that mean? It means not only can it do whatever it wants with this gene, it can prevent other people from working with it. In Paris, for example, a French researcher at the Curie Institute found that this particular test, the test of Myriad, actually missed a lot of breast cancers. But that finding could never have been made here in this country, because when other people try to work with these genes, Myriad sends a cease-and-desist letter and tells them, "We have the patent on this. You cannot work with it." So, it’s clear that the research into breast cancer treatment is being stymied by this patent. And Myriad is concerned with, as you heard, collecting its $3,000 to $4,000 fees from each woman who gets a BRACAnalysis. I think it’s nothing short of criminal.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk further about what this means for medical research in the United States and the privatization, the corporatization of knowledge.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Right. The ability of a corporation to hold a patent on our gene, the legal rationale for it is that they hold patents on genes that have been purified and isolated, so that they’re not the same genes in our body. But they are the same genes in our body. I think this is just a—Judge Sweet, who made a ruling on this, called it a "liar’s trick." I call it just semantics.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Judge Sweet’s role in all of this.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: Well, Judge Sweet, a little over a year ago, invalidated the patents. He said that these patents are not defensible, that you can’t patent a product of nature, and they weren’t valid. So, for about a year, the patent wasn’t in effect, but of course it was reversed on appeal. And so, now Myriad still holds the patent, as many other corporations hold patents on many genes. And the final decision will be made at the Supreme Court. It’s going to be going to the Supreme Court, I’m not sure when, but probably not before too long.

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