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. 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.
By Democracy Now! | Published in DemocracyNow.Org
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.
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?
HARRIET WASHINGTON: Hmm?
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.”
HARRIET WASHINGTON: Mm-hmm.
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.
Harriet Washington, medical ethicist and author. Her 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 author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.