Supreme court strikes down human gene patents


The Supreme court has ruled that human genes can’t be patented. However, synthesized versions of the material can be patented, the judges ruled.

In a unanimous verdict, the judges ruled against Myriad Gentics. That’s a firm which registered patents on two genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) which appear to be indicators of women having an increased chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer.

The genes help repair damaged DNA or destroy cells if necessary. If the genes themselves are damaged or mutated (something that can be hereditary), the body is unable to repair DNA in the affected tissue areas and thus the person is more at risk. It’s this mutation that led Angelina Jolie to undergo a mastectomy and then publicize her decision to highlight the issue.

Myriad Genetics argued that because it held the patent on the genes, it had the right to control who was able to carry out tests to detect the mutation and thus the cancer risks. That helped it take in revenues of around $500 million last year.

Critics said that not only was it wrong for a company to have a patent on genes, but that the patent was keeping diagnostic tests high and reducing the options for getting a second option.

The Association for Molecular Pathology challenged the case in court. A district court rules the patents were invalid, but a federal appeals court ruled in Myriad Genetics’s favor. It said that because the testing involved looking at an isolated section of molecules from the gene, what Myriad was patenting was not naturally occurring material.

After bouncing back and forth in the court system, the case finally came to a Supreme Court decision this week. As the Wall Street Journal notes, a lawyer for Myriad liked the gene patenting to a company being able to patent a baseball bat even though it’s made from the wood in a tree.

Chief Justice John Roberts rejected the analogy, saying that Myriad had effectively snipped off a section of molecules from the gene and noting that this was more like chopping off a branch of a tree than crafting a bat.

The judges rules that although Myriad is using a section of the gene, it is still naturally occurring human material and thus cannot be patented. They noted the ruling didn’t exclude the possibility of patenting a synthetic version of the same gene.

(Image credit: Emw via Creative Commons license)