A victory for science at the Supreme Court

In the most “duh” decision in who knows how long, the Supreme Court ruled today that large, profit-driven corporations (or anyone, for that matter) cannot patent naturally occurring genes:

Pronouncing what may seem like a patent truism, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Thursday that biotech researchers have to create something to get monopoly protection to study and apply the phenomenon. Because Myriad Genetics, Inc., “did not create anything,” the Court struck down its patent on isolating human genes from the bloodstream, unchanged from their natural form. Because Myriad did create a synthetic form of the genes, however, that could be eligible for a patent, the Court concluded.

The decision was a major blow to a company that believed it had a right to be the sole user and analyst of two human genes that show a high risk, for women found to have them in their blood, of breast and ovarian cancer.

This is a huge win for science, future research, and, frankly, human lives. Aside from the obvious dubiousness of patenting something that isn’t man-made, it was unconscionably unethical for Myriad Genetics to pursue this case at all. They should feel nothing but shame and moral grief at the human life they were inherently putting at risk. This was a rare excellent decision from the SCOTUS. (Surprisingly, they didn’t randomly and arbitrarily decide, for no discernible reason whatsoever, to also declare that any of the genes involved were people.)

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BRCA1 and BRCA2 patents struck down

For years private companies have been putting patents on your genes. In fact, roughly 1/5 of human genes has been patented. This potentially has huge ramifications as it can restrict research abilities to one company or at least make others wary of future pursuits. Fortunately, a federal judge has struck down much of this practice.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet challenging whether anyone can hold patents on human genes was expected to have broad implications for the biotechnology industry and genetics-based medical research.

Sweet said he invalidated the patents because DNA’s existence in an isolated form does not alter the fundamental quality of DNA as it exists in the body nor the information it encodes.

He rejected arguments that it was acceptable to grant patents on DNA sequences as long as they are claimed in the form of “isolated DNA.”

The specific genes this primarily affects are the BCRA1 and BRCA2 genes, both tumor suppressors. (That means damage to these genes can quickly lead to cancer.) These are highly important areas of research which women cannot afford to have restricted to one company. The ruling will surely be appealed, but it is encouraging to see the case go in this direction.