Tom Williams, Getty Images
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled
that human genes cannot be patented.
This appears to be a big win for cancer research.
It’s too early to make any definitive statements on the impact of this ruling, but many experts see this is a “victory for doctors and patients, who worried that company patents could interfere with medical research.”
The case dealt specifically with a Utah-based company called Myriad Genetics. These were the folks who isolated the much-discussed BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and investigated their involvement in increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer. These are naturally occurring genes in the human body, and not synthetic DNA created in a lab, which provided the basis for the Supreme Court’s distinction in its ruling.
“Myriad did not create anything,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court. “To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention.”
This ruling theoretically opens it up for labs across the world to run their own tests on these genes without interference from a private company or a patent office. Immediately after the ruling, the New York Times
wrote that “at least three companies and two university labs said that they would begin offering genetic testing in the field of breast cancer.”
If these genes sound familiar, it’s likely because you remember reading about them in Angelina Jolie’s Op-Ed about her decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy. She possesses the mutation on the BRCA1 gene that gives her an 87 percent risk in developing breast cancer.
It will be fascinating to see how this decision impacts future genetic tests, but right now, it appears as if costs for some of these tests will decrease, while patient access will increase — a huge win for the public.
• Justices, 9-0, Bar Patenting Human Genes (New York Times, June 13, 2013)
• Supreme Court: Human Genes Not Patentable (Barron’s, June 13, 2013)
• Myriad Genetics shares retreat on Court decision (USA Today, June 13, 2013)