The US Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that human genes and the information they contain cannot be patented by medical researchers, a holding that is expected to make it easier to engage in genetic research and cheaper for medical patients to obtain genetic testing.
The unanimous decision came in a case involving patents protecting genes with certain genetic mutations that scientists say can signal a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer in women.
The genetic testing issue has been in the news recently with the disclosure that actress Angelina Jolie consented to a double mastectomy after undergoing a genetic test from the same company involved in the Supreme Court case that showed she had a high risk of ovarian and breast cancer.
In invalidating patents held by the genetic testing and research firm, Myriad Genetics, the high court said that while the company's discovery concerning the genetic mutations was an important breakthrough, it did not amount to a patentable invention.
The decision raises doubts about the validity of some 4,000 other patents currently held on human genes. But the high court noted that synthetically created complimentary DNA, also called cDNA, which is used widely in research, remains eligible for a patent because it is not naturally occurring. This was seen by analysts as tempering the potential impact of the high court's decision.
Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas compared Myriad's discovery with a similar case before the Supreme Court in 1980. In that case, a scientist had found a way to induce bacteria to consume and break down crude oil through a natural process. (This was seen as an important advance, given the danger of massive oil spills.) Justice Thomas said the resulting oil-eating bacterium was new with markedly different characteristics from any found in nature.
"In this case, by contrast, Myriad did not create anything," Thomas said. "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."
Myriad uncovered the precise location and genetic sequence of the mutations that researchers associate with a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancers. But that alone did not create anything new or invent any new thing, Thomas said.
Myriad applied for and received patents protecting its discovery. The company used the patents to force other researches to stop certain lines of scientific inquiry. The company also used its patents to prevent others from developing cheaper, more efficient ways to screen women for the identified genetic mutations.
A group of researchers and medical patients filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of Myriad's patents. …