Justices Rule That Human Genes Can't Be Patented ; Decision Likely to Shape Research and Investment in Medical Development

By Liptak, Adam | International Herald Tribune, June 14, 2013 | Go to article overview

Justices Rule That Human Genes Can't Be Patented ; Decision Likely to Shape Research and Investment in Medical Development


Liptak, Adam, International Herald Tribune


The ruling will shape the course of research and testing, and it may alter the willingness of businesses to invest in understanding genetic material.

Isolated human genes may not be patented, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Thursday, in a case with far-reaching implications for the willingness and ability of businesses to pursue innovative but costly work to develop new gene-based drugs and medical tests.

The case concerned patents held by Myriad Genetics, a Utah company, on genes that correlate with increased risk of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. The patents were challenged by scientists and doctors who said their research and ability to help patients had been frustrated.

The particular genes at issue received public attention after the actress Angelina Jolie revealed in May that she had had a preventive double mastectomy after learning that she had inherited a faulty copy of a gene that put her at high risk for breast cancer.

The price of the test that disclosed the faulty gene, often more than $3,000, was partly a product of Myriad's patent, putting it out of reach for some women. The company filed patent infringement suits against others who conducted testing based on the gene. The price of the test "should come down significantly," said Dr. Harry Ostrer, a plaintiff in the case. The ruling, he said, "will have an immediate impact on people's health."

In effect, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court, discovering a gene found in nature does not qualify for a patent, while creating something not found in nature is an invention and is thus eligible for patent protection.

The court's ruling will shape the course of scientific research and medical testing in other fields.

But the ruling was not as sweeping as Myriad had feared, and the company's shares jumped 10 percent in the hours after the ruling was issued, apparently on the assumption that some of Myriad's patents - - and its prospects for further patentable work -- would be likely to survive, Reuters reported.

The decision was welcomed by several women's advocacy groups, which hope that it will make it easier for more companies to pursue tests and treatments for cancers and other diseases.

"Today, the court struck down a major barrier to patient care and medical innovation," said Sandra Park of the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "Myriad did not invent the BRCA genes and should not control them. Because of this ruling, patients will have greater access to genetic testing and scientists can engage in research on these genes without fear of being sued."

Karuna Jaggar, executive director of the group Breast Cancer Action, called the ruling "a tremendous victory for women with a known or suspected inherited risk of breast cancer. …

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