WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that human genes cannot be patented, a decision with both immediate benefits for some breast and ovarian cancer patients and long-lasting repercussions for biotechnology research.
The decision represents a victory for cancer patients, researchers and geneticists who claimed that a single company’s patent raised costs, restricted research and sometimes forced women to have breasts or ovaries removed without sufficient facts or second opinions.
But the court held out a lifeline to Myriad Genetics, the company with an exclusive patent on the isolated form of genes that can foretell an increased genetic risk of cancer. The justices said it can patent a type of synthesized DNA that goes beyond extracting the genes from the body.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the decision for a unanimous court. “Myriad did not create anything,” Thomas said. “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.”
The decision will allow other scientists and laboratories to provide genetic diagnostic testing, now that the patent on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes themselves has been lifted. That should lead to lower costs and greater access.
“It is splendid news for patients, for physicians, for scientists and for common sense,” Mary-Claire King, the geneticist who in 1990 discovered the abnormality on chromosome 17 that proved to be the breast cancer gene, told USA TODAY. “The marketplace will now be open.”
Myriad emphasized the bright side of the decision for the company — that cDNA, which is not naturally occurring, remains patentable. As a result, it said, 24 patents containing more than 500 valid claims remain in effect.
According to the report, this Supreme Court ruling invalidates “thousands of patents”.
Since 1984, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted more than 40,000 patents tied to genetic material. About one-fourth of the 22,000 human genes have been patented — patents that are now invalidated. That could open up competition in genetic testing for diseases ranging from Duchenne muscular dystrophy to inheritable heart arrhythmia.
Still, the bulk of the biotechnology industry’s products are not affected by the ruling, said Lawrence Brody of the National Human Genome Research Institute.