This morning the Supreme Court ruled that human genes separated from the body cannot be patented, but synthetic DNA can. The ruling was unanimous.
The case involved the Salt Lake City company Myriad Genetics Inc., which held patents related to the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are indicators of a woman’s risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Due to the patents, Myriad was the exclusive U.S. provider of genetic tests for the two types of cancer.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion for the court, stating that a naturally occurring strand of DNA can’t be patented because it is a “product of nature.”
An alliance of cancer patients, geneticists, and medical groups filed the lawsuit in 2009. They argued that due to the patents, Myriad was able to control the types of genetic screening available for the diseases and discourage research by other laboratories. Myriad’s defense was that the patents resulted from financial investments that permitted the company to make headway in its diagnoses of women’s risks for hereditary cancer. It argued that refusing patents like the ones on BRCA1 and BRCA2 would cause fewer financial investments for future medical advances.
“Patent law is filled with uneasy compromises. On the one hand, we do want people to invent; on the other hand, we’re very worried about them tying up some kind of whatever it is, particularly a thing that itself could be used for further advance,” said Justice Stephen Breyer during the arguments in April.
The ruling overturned an appeals court opinion that allowed gene-related patents. It is in line with the pattern the Supreme Court has been following over the past few years of restricting patent protections, over concerns that patents are being issued too easily and are therefore hindering innovation. In one instance, Justice Elena Kagan referred to the Patent and Trademark Office as “patent happy.”
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