Human Genes Cannot Be Patented, Says A Landmark US Supreme Court Ruling

A Supreme Court ruling may change the landscape of genetic research forever. The US Supreme Court ruled that human genes cannot be patented, in a landmark hearing giving a huge victory to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) while disheartening Myriad Genetics. The issue was the BRCA genes, the mutations on which are believed to be responsible for increasing the susceptibility to breast cancer.

The Contention

Myriad Genetics had claimed patent over this gene, claiming to have ‘invented’ this gene, which meant that all treatments and even detection of the BRCA gene would entail a royalty to Myriad. This would’ve raised the costs of detection, costs and treatment of breast cancer significantly. In a beautiful moment when calm commonsense prevailed, the Supreme Court struck down the ‘invention’ claim by saying:

Myriad did not create anything. 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 found the location of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but that discovery, by itself, does not render the BRCA genes … patent eligible.

Courtesy: medscape.com
Courtesy: medscape.com

The Consequences

This, of course, means huge losses for the pharmaceutical industries, but it’s the cancer patients who stand to benefit in the long run. The costs of detection tests and their subsequent treatment would come down, as no one company would have the monopoly on the technology and research. As it should be!

Myriad’s defence even involved a ludicrous ‘baseball’ argument, in which they argued that the “baseball bat doesn’t exist until it is isolated from a tree. But that’s still the product of human invention to decide where to begin the bat and where to end the bat”. This analogy fails on many levels and the court noted that merely deciding the start and end points of a gene sequence doesn’t deserve a patent. Official ruling said:

The baseball bat is quite different. You don’t look at a tree and say, well, I’ve cut a branch here and cut it here and all of a sudden I’ve got a baseball bat. You have to invent it.

However, Myriad did get part of the pie, when the court ruled that the Myriad can have its patent on the invention of the cDNA – complementary DNA – which is actually a synthetic form of DNA.

“The lab technician unquestionably creates something new when cDNA is made,” said the court.

The ruling here: http://www.aclu.org/free-speech-technology-and-liberty-womens-rights/association-molecular-pathology-v-myriad-genetics-0

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Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.