US Supreme Court: Genes Cannot Be Patented
Medical and biotechnology companies cannot
patent parts of naturally-occurring human
genes, the US Supreme Court has ruled.
The unanimous judgement reverses three
decades of patent awards by government
officials, carrying potentially far-ranging
Specifically, the ruling will throw out patents
held by Myriad Genetics on the increasingly
popular genetic breast cancer test.
That test, BRAC Analysis, was thrown into
the spotlight recently by actress Angelina
Jolie's announcement in May that she had a
double mastectomy after testing revealed she
carries the genes that increase the likelihood
of developing breast and ovarian cancers.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the
court's decision, said that Myriad's assertion
that it could patent the DNA it isolated from
the body for the tests violates patent rules.
"We hold that a naturally occurring DNA
segment is a product of nature and not
patent eligible merely because it has been
isolated," Mr Thomas said.
In other words, the court ruled that the laws
of nature, natural phenomena and abstract
ideas are not patentable.
Angelina Jolie announced her surgery in a
New York Times op-ed piece
The court did rule that synthetically created
DNA, known as cDNA, can be patented
"because it is not naturally occurring".
Patents are the legal protections that prevent
others from making, using or selling an
inventor's device, process or application.
The US Patent and Trademark Office has
been awarding patents on human genes for
almost 30 years.
But opponents of Myriad Genetics' patents on
the two genes linked to increased risk of
breast and ovarian cancer say such protection
should not be given to something that can be
found inside the human body.
Myriad Genetics used its patents to come up
with its BRAC Analysis test, which looks for
mutations on the breast cancer predisposition
gene, or BRCA.
Those mutations are associated with much
greater risks of breast and ovarian cancer.
Myriad sells the only BRCA gene test.
Opponents of its patents say the company
can use the patents to keep other
researchers from working with the BRCA gene
to develop other tests.
Companies have billions of dollars of
investment and years of research on the line
in this case.
Justice Thomas noted in his opinion there are
still ways for Myriad to make money from its
discovery by patenting the application of
knowledge of the two genes.