Supreme Court Rules Human Genes Can’t be Patented

Bioethics   Rebecca Taylor   Jun 13, 2013   |   1:01PM    Washington, DC

After years of back and forth, the question of whether naturally occurring human genes are patentable has been decided by the Supreme Court. Most Americans are not aware that about a quarter of their genes have been patented by companies and research institutions over the last few decades by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The Supreme Court has made the right decision and unanimously decided that your genes are not patentable. From the Wall Street Journal:

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that human genes isolated from the body can’t be patented, a victory for doctors and patients who argued that such patents interfere with scientific research and the practice of medicine.

The court was handing down one of its most significant rulings in the age of molecular medicine, deciding who may own the fundamental building blocks of life.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court, said the genes Myriad isolated are products of nature, which aren’t eligible for patents.

“Myriad did not create anything,” Justice Thomas wrote in an 18-page opinion. “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.”

Even if a discovery is brilliant or groundbreaking, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s patentable, the court said.

This is such good news for patients everywhere. Gene patenting has affected you directly whether you know it or not. Because a company legally “owns” a gene sequence, they control who is able to test or research that gene. In the case of genetic testing, labs are limited on what genes they can offer tests for because of gene patents, which limits the choices they can offer patients. Labs that are allowed to test a patented gene pay royalties to the companies that own the genes which drives up the cost of the genetic test. Many labs, like ones I have worked in, just chose not to offer the test at all.

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These patents also allowed companies to hold patents on genes and not do research on those genes. They could also prevent others from researching the gene as well. And because so many diseases have a genetic component, gene patents tie the hands of researchers who want to look at genetic links to disease. As Dr. Iris Schrijver, president of the Association for Molecular Pathology, which was against the issuing of gene patents, observed:

Because variation in gene sequences plays an important role in the development and progression of many diseases, through gene patents patent holders can essentially gain ownership of the understanding of some diseases and of certain areas of patient care itself.

No longer. Here is hoping that a new era of genetic research begins where our genes are not claimed by one company or another, but instead researchers are free to work on whatever gene they choose.