While U.S. and British scientists battle over whether or not genes can be patented, a more brazen effort to commercialize the human genome is going on in Iceland. On Mar. 10, deCode Genetics Inc., a U.S. company, filed a prospectus with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission for an initial public offering. Its primary asset: the genetic information of almost every Icelandic resident.
Iceland's national health system has long maintained a sophisticated national data base containing genetic information and a medical history of all the nation's 270,000 residents. In January, deCode Genetics received a license for exclusive 12-year access to the database from the Icelandic government, for a payment of $200 million. It's a unique resource because almost all Icelanders share a small group of common ancestors going back to the Vikings. Such genetic similarity means that individual genetic anomalies will easily stand out, and could possibly indicate the genes associated with specific diseases.
DeCode, which was founded by a former Icelander, neurologist Karl Stefansson, plans to market the database to drug companies doing genetic research. However, there is a highly vocal movement in Iceland that opposes deCode's plan on the basis of ethical and privacy concerns. Already, some 17,000 people have asked to have their personal genetic information removed from the database. "This company presumed that everyone consented to be on this database unless they opted out," says Michael Fortun, an ethicist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., who is advising the Icelandic foes of deCode's plan.