Taking notes 30: Privatizing the brain


by Steven Miller

President Obama announced the next step in research of the human brain. This is the BRAIN Initiative – Brain Research through Advanced Neurotechnologies. The US government will finance research into the next generation of technology to map the human brain with $100 million in seed money. The next step is to develop new electrical, optical, computer-assisted technology to investigate how the brain works at the level of neurons to determine how they work and how they link up in neural networks.

The current level of brain research is already pretty amazing. Without invading the skull, scientists can map the areas of the brain, and even neural pathways that respond to specific stimuli. For example, a given area of the brain will respond to stimulus by increasing the blood flow when it is being used. This area radiates more heat, which is easily detected.

When someone is shown a picture of their pet dog, for example, science can detect exactly which part of the brain activates. Scientists are thus able to detect which brain structures are involved when you dream, when you drive the car, when you fall in love or when you do your taxes. The brain, however, is perhaps the most complex thing in Nature. It has 10 billion cells that make 100 trillion connections. Getting down into the individual neurons and connections themselves offers the possibility of actually determining the structures of the mind, human personality and memory.

These amazing advances will all be privatized. Corporations intend to claim parts of the brain as private property and sell access for a price. The privatization trend has been rampant in biology and medicine for 30 years.


Can you own the Sun?

Polio epidemics swept the United States every summer in the early 1950s, terrifying families and entire communities. Sometimes whole birthday parties of kids would be affected, since bodily fluids in swimming pools could spread the virus. At the peak, in 1952, there were 58,000 new cases of children who were crippled or paralyzed.

Dr Jonas Salk became an international hero in 1955 by proving that an inactivated (dead) virus could easily be made into medicine that could immunize people against the disease. By 1957, 100 million doses had been administered in the US. Treatment on a similar scale spread rapidly across the industrial world. In 2002, over 500 million children were immunized in almost 100 countries. Today the Americas are polio free and the disease is close to extinction around the world.

Salk was asked, in a television interview, who owned the patent. His famous response was, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

This response would be impossible today. Equally impossible would be the massive immunization rapid-response by the public. The single thing that prevents this sort of public health response is that corporations now control the development of science and medicine through patents. And, yes, they do intend to patent the sun!

Fast-forward 40 years to the 1990s. Consider what happened with the next modern scourge, AIDS. After fighting the disease for 15 years, scientists had developed the cocktail of anti-viral drugs that would prolong life indefinitely by containing the virus. This time, however, the patents were all controlled by Big Pharma, the cartel of drug-makers like Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKlein. By that time, drugs now were the considered private property of corporations; thus they were protected by international treaties over intellectual property enforced by the United States.


The public no longer had the right to use the anti-virals without paying billion-dollar corporations for them. As AIDS swept across Africa, India and Asia, these corporations, demonstrating once again their great concern for the improvement of humanity, offered them for sale for a mere $15,000 a year. They claimed that the drugs were expensive to manufacture. Besides, they reported, Africans could not use them effectively. Maybe that was because they lived on less than $2 a day.

In India, Dr Yusuf Hamied broke the patents and began manufacturing the anti-virals so easily that they were available for only $350 a year. Big Pharma responded with the true compassion that only corporate-persons can evince. They used their political power to force governments across the world to criminalize anyone who dared to distribute the inexpensive drugs. Some ten million people died as a result.

The response of the public to these police actions was so massive that the governments of Brazil and India were forced to declare that they would break the patents. Corporations could no longer control the distribution of generic AIDS drugs. Thousands of lives were saved. Big Pharma still works actively to prevent the distribution of life-saving generic drugs.[1] They innocently strive to maximize profit, even at the expense of human life.

This is a terrible crime against humanity, one committed by corporate-persons against real persons. Such crime is inevitable when corporations control the resources of health, medicine, science, research and, in fact, any and all forms of technology.


Privatizing Life

In 1980, the Supreme Court, in the Chakrabarty Decision, held that the scientist could patent a bacterium that he had “invented”. Chakrabarty had taken an existing bacterium and inserted genes from another existing bacterium. The court said that since isolated genes did not exist in nature or in any cell (which is of course true), the scientist therefore created something new by isolating them. This opened the door to patenting life forms.

Patents traditionally have been for tangible, hard inventions, real human-created things like a device or a manufacturing process. Natural processes had never before been considered as private property. These were things like laws of nature, the force of gravity or the vibrations of atoms, or natural things like oceans or Antarctica. You could own a horse, but you couldn’t own the species.

Quickly corporations began to besiege the US Patent Office with patents on various life forms, including human DNA. The Supreme Court decision did not address human DNA, but the patent Office did, in secret procedures since these are not open to public debate. They allowed the extension of patent rights to every form of life without any public debate whatsoever.

Privatization rapidly followed. Sequanna Therapeutics filed for patents on the cells and genes of indigenous tribes in New Guinea. Rice-Tec got patents on the famous Basmati variety of rice that has been grown in India for centuries. How can it be that a US company can patent crops created by farmers in another country, thousands of years ago? Well, US law allows patents for the party that registers first, not necessarily for the discoverers. Corporations will always beat you to that.

During the 1960s, scientists showed that the bark of the Pacific Yew tree, found in Oregon and Washington, contained a protein that could kill cancer cells. This was marketed as the drug Taxol. The next question obviously was…  what other marvelous proteins exist in Nature? Today corporations are rapidly privatizing every life form they can get their hands on, from frogs to herbs to insects… and to humans.


In the 1980s, an engineer named John Moore was treated for hairy-cell leukemia at the UCLAMedical Center. Doctors took cell samples of Moore from his blood, skin, bone and sperm. They then began to grow Moore’s cells in cell cultures for research. Though cells die inside of an organism in the ordinary life process, they can be kept alive indefinitely for years in a petri dish. The doctors recognized that Moore’s cells produced some unique proteins, so they sold them, for a profit, to a biotech company.

John Moore sued the doctors, Sandoz (a pharmaceutical company) and the Regents of the University of California. The California Supreme Court held in 1991 that John Moore had no right to his “discarded” cells, or to any profits made from them.

Try this yourself. If by chance you have to have your appendix removed ask the hospital to give it back to you. “Sorry”, they will respond, “You signed the papers. We keep it or there’s no operation.” They own your tissue, not you.

The recent book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, details the horrific story of how corporations harvested the cells of an African-American cancer patient before she died in 1951 to begin a highly profitable HeLa cell line. Trillions more HeLa cells exist today than there ever were in the body of Ms Lacks. “One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing.”[2]


The HeLa cell line was even used in creating the polio vaccine! To this day, her family has received no compensation for anything, even though her cells changed the face of medicine.

Ownership of human life in the form of slavery was legal in the US from 1620 to 1865. Under the banner of private property, the slaves were denied access to all they produced. Today – under the banner of private property – humans are being harvested once again for what they produce. This might sound harsh and disconcerting, but there is truth here.

Every single person who was arrested or detained by the US military during the Iraq War (and no doubt everywhere the military is active) has been forced to give up cell samples in the form of a simple mouth swab with a Q-tip. Although it is “proprietary information” and therefore not readily available to the public, there can be no doubt that the infrastructure exists to culture these cells to see what is interesting.

In 2012, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a 2004 California law requiring officials to collect the DNA samples from prisoners does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches. Claiming that these are fingerprints for the 21st Century, California Attorney General Kamala Harris claimed this as “a victory for public safety in California.”[3]


With corporations working night and day to privatize literally everything in the world, it is hard to imagine that they haven’t found a way to seize and profit from these potential cell lines. How far, are we, from an America of 315 million petri dishes, all tested and controlled by automated machinery that flag any unique chemical process for further investigation? The potential wonder of this technology is crippled by corporations that use it only for private corporate profit.

The sequencing of the Human Genome in 2000 kicked off the next bio gold rush. By claiming that they had discovered the function of a given gene, corporations then patented them. The classic, and highly notorious, case is that of the so-called Breast Cancer genes, BRCA I and BRCA II, which, if you have them, are associated with breast cancer. Here is how Wikipedia describes what happened:

A patent application for the isolated BRCA1 gene and cancer-cancer promoting mutations, as well as methods to diagnose the likelihood of getting breast cancer, was filed by the University of Utah, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and Myriad Genetics in 1994; over the next year, Myriad, in collaboration with other investigators, isolated and sequenced the BRCA2 gene and identified relevant mutations, and the first BRCA2 patent was filed in the U.S. by Myriad and the other institutions in 1995. Myriad is the exclusive licensee of these patents and has enforced them in the US against clinical diagnostic labs.

This business model led from Myriad being a startup in 1994 to being a publicly traded company with 1200 employees and about $500M in annual revenue in 2012; it also led to controversy over high prices and the inability to get second opinions from other diagnostic labs, which in turn led to the landmark Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics lawsuit. The patents begin to expire in 2014.[4]

Their “business model” was to demand that anyone who wanted to be tested for the genes had to pay Myriad to access their “intellectual property”, even though the genes existed in their body. Strangely, the cost of access was… exorbitant.


The human brain is next

President Obama knows all this history. He is not naïve. He is consciously opening up the privatization of the human brain. Let us examine exactly what he said when the initiative was announced:

Today I’ve invited some of the smartest people in the country, some of the most imaginative and effective researchers in the country — some very smart people to talk about the challenge that I issued in my State of the Union address: to grow our economy, to create new jobs, to reignite a rising, thriving middle class by investing in one of our core strengths, and that’s American innovation.

Ideas are what power our economy.  It’s what sets us apart.  It’s what America has been all about.  We have been a nation of dreamers and risk-takers; people who see what nobody else sees sooner than anybody else sees it.  We do innovation better than anybody else — and that makes our economy stronger.  When we invest in the best ideas before anybody else does, our businesses and our workers can make the best products and deliver the best services before anybody else.

And because of that incredible dynamism, we don’t just attract the best scientists or the best entrepreneurs — we also continually invest in their success.  We support labs and universities to help them learn and explore.  And we fund grants to help them turn a dream into a reality.  And we have a patent system to protect their inventions.  And we offer loans to help them turn those inventions into successful businesses.[5]

“Investing in ideas”, “investing in their success”, “attracting the best entrepreneurs” and “supporting labs and universities” are all code words for corporate ownership. When Jonas Salk worked on polio, the federal government funded the bulk of scientific research as a subsidy to corporations. It still does so today, although they are reducing their contribution. In the 1950s, federal R & D went to universities, which turned their results over to the government as public property. Not so today.


The same year as the Chakrabarty Decision (what a coincidence), the Bayh-Dole Act  was passed to allow universities and corporations to license and patent government-funded research. Then the Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986 permitted university labs to accept funding from corporations in exchange for intellectual property rights. Corporations are now authorized to commercialize inventions owned by universities through various leasing agreements. Further, they get massive tax credits for investing in university research.[6]

In other words, corporations now own the vast bulk of publicly funded university research in the US. This is a historic transition in how scientific inquiry is organized. Private funding increased 250% from 1985 to $2.4 billion in 2005. In the ‘70s, about 62% of government-funded research was basic research – science to investigate fundamental issues of science.[7] This is being increasingly replaced with “commercial research” that is driven by the market and the corporate demand for private profits. Universities are being warped into being a component of global capitalism.

Consequently corporations will make the choices over what is researched. This will be based on corporate interest and private profit, rather than the public interest. We see the results already. While there are dozens of animal diseases that are treated with immunizations, there is little research to find them for humans. It is far more profitable to find a medicine that treats the disease for life without eliminating it.

This trend is not going to stop with the BRAIN Initiative. However, there is one aspect of this that is still under public control. The project will be organized by the military (assuming the military is not privatized) through DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the Defense Department’s research arm. DARPA itself has a significant portfolio of companies that research biological and neuroscience. How reassuring.


Back in the ‘80s, the happy, chirpy slogan was “GE – we bring good things to life!” Today it is becoming abundantly clear that the global corporatocracy – the organized power of the 1% – demonstrates the malign intent of a psychopath.

These corporate persons sell depleted uranium bullets to the army that spread radiation everywhere. They consciously let New Orleans founder in Hurricane Katrina. They openly organize the pipelines so that they can burn the Canadian Tar Sands, which will release so much carbon dioxide that it will trigger climate collapse. They brag that they will continue to make a profit off the end of human civilization. Meanwhile, they are addicting our children to high fructose corn sugar and producing an epidemic of diabetes in children. And if you do not like it, corporations will use their private drones to enforce their will.

Corporations are a carcinogen, a cancer that grows at the expense of the human body, both publicly and individually. As they unleash crisis after crisis, they are systematically destroying the institutions of society. That means we have no choice but to build new institutions that benefit the public in all directions. We really do not have much choice. This will require a historic political battle that will heal humanity and the planet.

The technology they claim as private property has the potential for the first time to free humanity from misery, yet they can only use it to degrade society even further. Corporate property no longer serves real people. The very intent is malign and destructive. The solution is to make it public property and to place its control in the cooperative hands of the public.

[Note: This piece first appeared on dailycensored.com. Also 4th December 2013 is the second anniversary of Philosophers for Change: we thank all contributors and readers for their support.]


End notes

[1] Democracy Now, “Fire in the Blood”, January 13, 2013

[2] Rebecca Skloot. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” New York Times, February 2, 2010

[3] Terry Baynes. “U.S. appeals court finds DNA testing constitutional”, February 23, 2013: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/24/us-usa-dna-database-idUSTRE81N04020120224

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BRCA2

[5] Remarks by the President on the BRAIN Initiative and American Innovation: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/04/02/remarks-president-brain-initiative-and-american-innovation

[6] David Hill, “Corporate Sponsored Research and Development at Universities in the United States.” AIPPI Journal, June 2002

[7] East Bay Express, April 10-16, 2013.


[Thank you indeed Steve for this insightful contribution]

The writer taught science in Oakland high schools for 25 years. He started writing about privatization in 2003, when the state seized the school district and started imposing corporatization and privatization. He has written about the privatization of water, public education and the police.

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