It's in the genes
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of nature this week, a decision that should help accelerate the dawning age of genetic medicine.
Human genes are products of nature, the court found, and patents may not be awarded on their exclusive use just because a particular company or researcher happened to isolate one and discover its function.
The decision means that a patent awarded to Myriad Genetics Inc. of Salt Lake City, which has extracted DNA for development of tests used to predict breast and ovarian cancer, will be revoked. One of the tests is known as BRACAnalysis, which Angelina Jolie cited recently in her decision to undergo a double mastectomy because of her high risk of breast cancer.
Myriad is not alone. Patents on human genes have been awarded for about 30 years. But the decision makes sense. Patents should not be awarded on the raw materials of biology any more than they should be awarded on other naturally occurring substances. There are no patents on coal or natural gas, for example, but there are thousands of patents on devices to extract, refine and burn those materials.
Likewise, the court found that patents may be awarded for application of specific treatments derived from the natural DNA, and for creation of synthetic DNA.
The ruling means that many researchers may have open access to genes and DNA without violating patents, thus creating prospects for more life-saving tests and treatments - and more profits from biotechnology.