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Biological Properties: Genetics, US Patent Law, and the Accumulation of the “Primitive” in a Biocapitalist Age

January 26, 2016
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The Department of Sociology and Anthropology's Spring Colloquium Series

Biological Properties: Genetics, US Patent Law, and the Accumulation of the “Primitive” in a Biocapitalist Age

Dr Coleman Nye, Assistant Professor, Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies, Simon Fraser University

January 26,  Tuesday, 1:00 -  2:30 pm

Burnaby Campus, Simon Fraser University
Academic Quadrangle Bldg (AQ) 5067 (Ellen Gee Common Room)


Coleman Nye is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at Simon Fraser University. Her current book project, Speculative Science: Gender, Genetics, and the Futures of Life, examines the performative dimensions of breast and ovarian cancer genetics in the contemporary US. Samples of this research have appeared in TDR: The Drama Review and Women and Performance. She is also collaborating with Sherine Hamdy on a graphic novel about global bioethics entitled Lissa (Arabic for "Still Time").

Abstract: On April 15, 2013, women gathered on the steps of the US Supreme Court carrying signs that read, “Human Genes Belong to Human Beings, Not Corporations,” and “I Take Back My Genes.” Inside, the Court was hearing oral arguments in the landmark case of Association of Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. – a case that has been called the Brown v. Board of Education of genetic science. At stake was the patentability of human genetic materials, specifically the BRCA genes, commonly referred to as the “breast cancer genes.” The central legal question undergirding the case was: Is genetic material isolated from a body an unpatentable product of nature or a patentable “manmade” invention? A range of definitional quandaries emerged in and around the Myriad case, as various legal, lay, and scientific actors debated the biological properties of genetics (what is a gene?) and the problem of genetic property (who, if anyone, owns a gene and under what conditions?). By contextualizing the oral arguments and ultimate outcome of the legal case within a deeper history of patenting life, this paper examines the ethical and epistemological stakes of legislating biological property. Specifically, this talk theorizes how discourses of race and gender were strategically mobilized in legal attempts to define nature, personhood, and property in the domain of genetics, and how this legislation has, in turn, shaped research and access in minority and women’s health.

Free and open to the public; light refreshments served