imageA couple of years ago, I wrote about this issue in the news of A1 versus A2 milk. In a nutshell, some research has hinted that a certain gene in milk cows may create milk which, when consumed, causes health problems in humans. The gene is easily tested, and easily bred-out of cow populations. And consumers want this milk. So why isn’t it more available and known in the U.S.?

Since then, I’ve been meaning to write again about it, as I’ve stumbled across more info on it. But forgot until today, when someone ping’ed me with a comment.

It turns out that there is demand and interest in the U.S. for A2 milk. Both consumers are asking to be able to buy this milk (and presumably are willing to pay more for it) and producers have been interested in creating herds of A2 only milk cows, in order to supply this demand. And maybe, by golly, make milk production something other than a terrible money-losing proposition.

But there is a catch. A patent. The DNA test for the A2 gene is patented and only one company, and their licensees, can perform the test. On top of it, they apparently reserve the right to use data submitted in any way they please, and they constrain what people can do with the A2 label. So there are barriers. The test is more costly than it probably needs to be (looks like $25 at UC Davis, and I think it was more expensive in the past), because there is no competition amongst different companies offering it. Farmers are afraid that their data may not be treated confidentially, as it is with most DNA testing companies. And, farmers can’t freely advertise A2 milk without potentially infringing on the trademark. These barriers are significant enough that this A2 milk thing won’t take off in our country until the patent expires and competition is introduced into the market. So, we’ll have to wait until the year 2023 to see.

This is not the first time I’ve noticed this subject of patenting DNA tests which are, or potentially are, related to public health. The issue is strongly debated in the dog show world. That crowd of people has high interest in identifying genes for heritable disease and breeding away from them. They love their dogs, and they want them to live a long time and not suffer from disease. They are willing to donate money to studies, and contribute samples and data at their own expense in order to facilitate the identification of said genes. This demographic has a very well-funded hobby.

Universities have noticed. This venue offers a seemingly endless supply of funding and research topics to keep faculty and graduate students busy for an eternity. And for some universities, it’s not only income to sponsor the studies, but the ability to sell the patents on the resulting discoveries. It’s a cash cow.

This raises an ethical dilemma: if I accept public funds for my research, should I profit from the results, or rather, release them to the public domain for all to benefit? The issue may be less distressing when it applies to “just show dogs”. But the the thing is, most animal health studies offer benefit to corresponding human health studies. So then, we swim in the gray area of profiting from things which offer public good. And, creating financial barriers that restrict public access from benefitting from such discoveries.

Some universities have taken a stance and have a no-profit policy on such public-funded research. And some grant entities, such as the AKC Canine Health Foundation, have made clear policies that they will not fund these profit-machine studies. Meanwhile, other universities are going hog wild with this new, easy revenue stream. The difference in price of DNA tests is quite striking. Patented DNA tests for show dogs run over $200 apiece. Compare to the public domain test for sheep scrapie DNA: around $10. So the delta is clear: when one company has the corner on the market  for a DNA test, it offers them quite a markup as compared to when there is competition.

Our instincts might say, there oughtta be a law…. But that’s another catch. It’s seemingly impossible to rein-in the profit mongers without reining-in innovation. How do you define the law? How do you know for sure that a particular DNA study is indeed an issue of public health such that it should be mandated to be public domain? And would researchers be so hot to do this work if it paid “government wages,” so to speak? The A2 gene is a good example. We think this gene may be linked to all sorts of alarming public health issues: heart disease, autism, obesity, and IBD. If it is, then we’ll lament that we didn’t rush this knowledge into the marketplace as fast as possible, bypassing intellectual property protections in order to save lives. On the other hand, if this theory is wrong, this may just be a consumer fad. And those are fair game for patent and profit.

I don’t know what the answer is, only that it’s disappointing to think that a patent stands in the way of me trying out this milk to see if it benefits my health.