BRCA1 and BRCA2 patents struck down

For years private companies have been putting patents on your genes. In fact, roughly 1/5 of human genes has been patented. This potentially has huge ramifications as it can restrict research abilities to one company or at least make others wary of future pursuits. Fortunately, a federal judge has struck down much of this practice.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet challenging whether anyone can hold patents on human genes was expected to have broad implications for the biotechnology industry and genetics-based medical research.

Sweet said he invalidated the patents because DNA’s existence in an isolated form does not alter the fundamental quality of DNA as it exists in the body nor the information it encodes.

He rejected arguments that it was acceptable to grant patents on DNA sequences as long as they are claimed in the form of “isolated DNA.”

The specific genes this primarily affects are the BCRA1 and BRCA2 genes, both tumor suppressors. (That means damage to these genes can quickly lead to cancer.) These are highly important areas of research which women cannot afford to have restricted to one company. The ruling will surely be appealed, but it is encouraging to see the case go in this direction.

Your genes, sleep, fruit flies, mice, and Palin

Despite the fact that she is a whiny, genuinely stupid quitter, Sarah Palin has been popping up all over the place lately. Most recently she has been spouting off some garbage that Obama wants to set up a “death panel” in the health care bill. In truth, the bill calls for discussing one’s living will (and related concerns) with a doctor, should one choose to do that. This serves to better protect the interests of the patient. Such a measure could have avoided that whole Terri Schiavo fiasco. But, again, Palin is genuinely stupid. She never knows what’s going on. She makes this clear – literally – every single time she publicly speaks. She was especially clear when she said some remarkably stupid things about fruit fly research during the campaign season. I mention all this because of some recent research which relied on fruit flies*, and which can have a direct impact on the health of people.

Scientists have discovered the first gene involved in regulating the optimal length of human sleep, offering a window into a key aspect of slumber, an enigmatic phenomenon that is critical to human physical and mental health.

The article is well worth the read, and will probably give a fuller picture than I’m going to give. It’s all about a gene which has some seemingly minor variations, yet these variations (alleles) can drastically affect the health of the carrier.

The researchers found that mutated versions of the gene can affect the time some people go to bed, wake up, and how well they physically, emotionally, and mentally perform throughout the day. For instance, most people need roughly 8 hours of sleep a night, but one gene variant allows some to get back on 6 hours while not experiencing adverse consequences to their health.

And of course, this research was possible due to the contributions of various mice and fruit flies. When researchers would find a particular variant of this gene, they would ‘tinker’ with the same gene in these test subjects and measure the effects. One finding was that genetically engineered mice would compensate far less for sleep deprivation than would the control mice.

It isn’t clear yet exactly what it is about this gene (DEC2) which triggers the change in sleep need, but it may be that it makes protein transcription weaker, but other explanations are possible until more research is done.

*What genetic research doesn’t rely on fruit flies these days?

Genes and intelligence

More Evidence That Intelligence Is Largely Inherited: Researchers Find That Genes Determine Brain’s Processing Speed

In a study published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience, UCLA neurology professor Paul Thompson and colleagues used a new type of brain-imaging scanner to show that intelligence is strongly influenced by the quality of the brain’s axons, or wiring that sends signals throughout the brain. The faster the signaling, the faster the brain processes information. And since the integrity of the brain’s wiring is influenced by genes, the genes we inherit play a far greater role in intelligence than was previously thought.

What the study found was that myelin thickness corresponds to intelligence. That is, the more fatty covering of the axons in your brain, the more intelligent you are likely to be. And because myelin thickness is genetically linked, intelligence has a genetic link.

What’s important to remember here is that intelligence isn’t soley about genetics. We are not our genes. Environmental influences are still overwhelmingly strong in determining intelligence. Take the South. I doubt there’s really such a large contingent of people with thin myelin gathered below the Mason-Dixon line. It’s more likely a lack of education funding and general principles praising intellectual achievement (see last 50 thousand election cycles, especially the last three national elections).

Because the myelination of brain circuits follows an inverted U-shaped trajectory, peaking in middle age and then slowly beginning to decline, Thompson believes identifying the genes that promote high-integrity myelin is critical to forestalling brain diseases like multiple sclerosis and autism, which have been linked to the breakdown of myelin.

Weird how science does good things.