Guest Blogger: Brian Andrews
Medical practitioners and medical researchers have always been joined at the hip, but with the advent of modern genetics, they’ve become strange bedfellows. The weirdness started in early 1950’s with an American woman named Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer and treated at Johns Hopkins. For diagnostic purposes, her doctor ordered a tissue biopsy of her cervix. A scientist in the culture lab by the name of George Gey noticed that Lacks’ cancer cells did not die off in the culture dish like normal cells. Instead, they survived and multiplied unfettered. He dubbed these resilient cells HeLa cells, borrowing the first two letters from Henrietta and Lacks. As a scientist, Gey realized that these immortal cells would be invaluable to the field of medical research, so he cultured a HeLa cell line for this express purpose and laid the foundation for sixty years of ground-breaking research based on Lack’s cellular mutation. Without HeLa cells, modern medicine would not be where it is today: vaccine creation, cancer research, pharmaceutical drug development, our understanding of infectious diseases like HIV and influenza all rely on the use of HeLa cells. Global medicine and health (i.e., the greater good) was served because of Gey’s insight and Lack’s contribution.
What a wonderful success story, right? Well, not exactly.
Recently, Henrietta Lacks has become the poster child for biomedical exploitation. Why? Because the HeLa cell line was cultured, patented, and commercialized without Lacks’ knowledge or consent. Moreover, her family was kept in the dark and never financially compensated or paid a royalty from the subsequent profits. (Rebecca Skloot’s book, THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS, tells Henrietta’s story in excruciating detail if you are interested in additional reading on Lacks.) But there is more at stake than informed consent and just compensation when it comes to medical research on the human genome… much more.
Did you know that a company called Myriad Genetics presently owns patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancer marker genes? This means if a woman wants to test if she carries the BRCA1/2 genes, she must pay Myriad Genetics whatever price they demand for the gene verification test because they have a monopoly. Every woman who has the BRCA1/2 genes will be happy to know that Myriad Genetics owns this little piece of their genome. In fact, recent reports estimate that 25% of the human genome is patented. Does it bother you to know that you’ve lost the right to 25% of your person? It bothers me… so I wrote a book about it.
My debut thriller, THE CALYPSO DIRECTIVE, explores the slippery slope of gene patenting. The novel’s protagonist, Will Foster, becomes embroiled in the dark side of biomedical research when his genome is stolen because of a priceless genetic mutation he possesses. THE CALYPSO DIRECTIVE is a thriller, but amidst the chase scenes and sleuthing for answers, it also delves into the following questions: When does genetic research become genetic piracy? Does serving the “greater good” justify exploitation of the individual? Does a human being have the right to own his or her own genome?
Midwest born and raised, Brian Andrews is a US Navy Veteran who served as an officer aboard a 688 class nuclear submarine in the Pacific. He graduated summa cum laude from Vanderbilt University with a degree in psychology. He is a Park Leadership Fellow and holds a Masters degree from Cornell University. Brian lives in Tornado Alley with is wife and daughter.