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Book Review: The Genealogy of a Gene - Patents, HIV/AIDS and Race

19 October 2015
Appeared in BioNews 824

The Genealogy of a Gene: Patents, HIV/AIDS, and Race

By Professor Myles Jackson

Published by MIT Press

ISBN-10: 0262028662, ISBN-13: 978-0262028660

Buy this book from Amazon UK

Can your 'race' determine how susceptible you are to a disease? Who can own your genes? What use could 'The Genealogy of A Gene' serve? Professor Myles W. Jackson's recent book is an impressive examination of the CCR5 gene, which provides a carefully detailed interdisciplinary understanding involving biochemistry, genetics, biotechnology as well as the historical and contemporary aspects of patenting and intellectual property laws.

The book demonstrates how patenting practices have enabled the spread of market-led mechanisms in genetic-based medicine, which has increased the presence and market expansion of pharmaceutical and biotech companies. This has ushered in what Jackson refers to as biocapitalism, where both small and globally dominant corporations are growing by commodifying genetic materials and processes while, at the same time, reducing the accessibility to the use of patented materials and the associated knowledge.

The CCR5's genealogy is then used to illuminate how these factors are interlinked with the use of race in the genetic study of HIV and AIDS. The CCR5 protein is recognised by the HIV-1 virus as a coreceptor, and is used by HIV-1 to enter and infect the host cells (Jackson 2015, p8). It has an allele known as CCR5 Delta 32, which enables resistance to the HIV-1 infection. The book demonstrates how this became the site of competition for patenting, where pharmaceutical companies pushed for drug production which would enable privileges for the competing bodies that wanted to capitalise on a new market for HIV drugs.

The strength of his argument lies in the historical accuracy of legal events regarding the change of patent laws, the role of corporations in genomics, as well as the influence of the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in facilitating the role of corporations. Jackson also demonstrates how regulatory models historically differ in Europe and the USA, providing alternative methods that could be used in the USA to enable more equitable access.

The book argues that market competition over patenting genes and drug development is at the expense of providing equitable drug treatment and healthcare. A strong case is put forwards arguing that innovation, research and health benefits are hindered by reducing access to biological materials and making the sharing of scientific knowledge more difficult. Jackson's focus here accurately demonstrates how the use value of genetic materials and information for the purposes of healthcare are considered less important than the exchange value and the ability to make profit in the market. He successfully argues for possible alternatives that are more equitable by using legal historical examples.

What could have improved Jackson's critique of the complex interrelations of institutions surrounding the CCR5 gene would have been to provide more detail of his conception of neo-liberalism. He writes that the story of the '…CCR5 gene is not neoliberal, laissez-faire government that allows the private sector to call the shots but rather one of a government that insists that the private sector follows its lead in including under-represented groups of American society' (Jackson 2015, p174). Here, it would have been more useful to integrate his work about the role of state bodies, such as the Food and Drug Administration and USPTO. This could have explored how neoliberalism also involves the role of state bodies in privatisation, increasing marketisation and reducing public ownership, as is the case shown by patenting of genetic material and drug manufacturing.

The focus on Delta 32 and HIV resistance is instructive in showing how race can be reified through genomics, constructing an essentialist understanding of race, even if the intention to do so is not present. The issue of the Delta 32 mutation being seen as predominantly in Northern Europeans and its relation to how race has been geneticised and molecularised provides a good insight into contemporary problems in race-based genomics. Here, we see how the inclusion of race categories functions as a way to reinforce racial identities, which enables essentialist ideas of certain groups having certain diseases. Jackson does a good job of demonstrating that different environmental exposures of populations can lead to differences in disease susceptibility, the cause is not genetically race-based differences, but different environmental pressures influencing different populations.

Looking at the commodification of race shows how issues surrounding race and race-based identities have been exploited through the geneticisation and molecularisation of race (even though scientific evidence is clear that race does not have a genetic basis). Jackson's book demonstrates that arguing for a genetic basis for race creates a premise for Big Pharma to market drugs, seen as specific to the so-called genetic differences between race groups.

I highly recommend this book to those who want a detailed and rich understanding of the CCR5 gene, HIV, geneticisation of race, as well as the historical and contemporary legal aspects of patent law. Jackson's call is for the move towards a more equitable delivery of healthcare, increased public access to information and genetic materials. His use of historical analyses provides alternatives to how this can be achieved, echoing Marx, his book ends with the message that his work is 'not simply to interpret the world but to change it'.

Buy The Genealogy of a Gene: Patents, HIV/AIDS, and Race from Amazon UK.

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