No, You Can’t Patent Human Genes: Supreme Court

Emma Foehringer Merchant

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that naturally occurring human genes may not be patented, reversing three decades of patent awards by the United States government. The case involved Myriad Genetics Incorporated of Salt Lake City, who held patents to two sequences of DNA used to test for increased risks of developing breast or ovarian cancers. The Washington Post reports:  Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the court’s decision, said that Myriad’s assertion—that the DNA it isolated from the body for its proprietary breast and ovarian tests were patentable—had to be dismissed because it violates patent rules. The court has said that laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas are not patentable. … Myriad sells the only BRCA gene test. Opponents of its patents say the company can use the patents to keep other researchers from working with the BRCA gene to develop other tests.  This decision has major implications for health policy in the U.S., and will allow much greater access for patients looking for testing and treatment for these cancers. The ACLU celebrated the decision saying, “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.” While naturally occurring genes cannot be patented, the court also ruled that synthetically created genes can be. This aspect of the decision will continue to allow biotech companies to reap the monetary rewards of some genetic discoveries. 

Emma Foehringer Merchant is a summer 2013 editorial intern.
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