US top court to hear case on gene patents

April 13, 2013 by Jean-Louis Santini

The US Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday on whether to allow private entities to patent genes they have isolated and identified, a decision that could have far-reaching implications for genetic research.

The nine justices will review a 2012 appeals court decision that allowed a , Myriad Genetics Inc, to patent two it found had links to breast and .

But the ruling has drawn protest from a broad group, including associations representing some 150,000 researchers, doctors and patients, who are now asking the nation's top court to overturn it.

"Our is based on 150 years Supreme court doctrine that says, under the patent act, products and are not patentable," said lawyer Sandra Park of the , which is leading the judicial battle along with the Patent .

According to Park, extracting a gene from a cell to isolate it does not constitute an invention by itself.

"Myriad did not invent either of those qualities, just as a doctor that removes a kidney from the body for transplant does not somehow invent that kidney," she said.

"Obstacle" to research

For Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics who teaches at Columbia University in New York, Myriad's two patents obtained in the 1990s create a "lack of access to testing but also a lack of access for further development of basic research."

Park explained that "because of Myriad's patent of the gene, no other scientists can look at these genes."

The "very broad" patent "precludes any laboratory or scientists from doing clinical or research work with theses genes because isolation is fundamental to doing anything with them," she emphasized.

As a result, the researchers are unable to develop competing tests that may potentially be more effective than Myriad's to determine if a women is a carrier of the mutations that predispose her to breast or ovarian cancer.

That's a crucial problem, said Ellen Matloff, director of cancer genetic counseling at the Yale Cancer Center, because Myriad's test falls short and fails to detect the mutated genes in some women.

"No one else can do testing, no one else can offer a more comprehensive test and unfortunately as a result of that, that will cost lives," Matloff lamented.

Moreover, with its monopoly, Myriad can bill more than $3,000 for an analysis that, Matloff said, should cost a tenth as much.

But Myriad defends its patents and denies they cover mere products of nature.

"Myriad created synthetic molecules of DNA in the laboratory that are used to test patients for increased risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer," the company said in a statement.

"Those synthetic molecules are different from what is found in nature or the human body," it emphasized.

It maintained, as well, that the discovery of the two genes, the product of research that typically requires years of effort and large investments, ought to be protected.

Nearly 20 percent of the approximately 24,000 human genes are currently under , some of which are associated with Alzheimer's disease or other cancers.

These patents are sometimes owned by private companies but also by universities and research institutes concerned with keeping them in the public domain to prevent companies from seizing them.

The Supreme Court's decision is expected in June.

Explore further: US judge strikes down patent on cancer genes

Related Stories

US judge strikes down patent on cancer genes

March 29, 2010

(AP) -- In a ruling with potentially far-reaching implications for the patenting of human genes, a judge on Monday struck down a company's patents on two genes linked to an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Myriad can patent breast cancer genes: US court

July 30, 2011

A federal appeals court on Friday ruled in favor of Myriad Genetics after a legal battle over whether the US company could keep its patent on genes linked to an inherited form of breast cancer.

High court throws out human gene patents

March 26, 2012

(AP) -- The Supreme Court on Monday threw out a lower court ruling allowing human genes to be patented, a topic of enormous interest to cancer researchers, patients and drug makers.

US court to decide if human genes can be patented

November 30, 2012

The Supreme Court announced Friday it will decide whether companies can patent human genes, a decision that could reshape medical research in the United States and the fight against diseases like breast and ovarian cancer.

Recommended for you

Face shape is in the genes

August 25, 2016

Many of the characteristics that make up a person's face, such as nose size and face width, stem from specific genetic variations, reports John Shaffer of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, and colleagues, in a ...

Researchers discover otulipenia, a new inflammatory disease

August 22, 2016

National Institutes of Health researchers have discovered a rare and sometimes lethal inflammatory disease - otulipenia - that primarily affects young children. They have also identified anti-inflammatory treatments that ...

Solving the mystery of meningiomas reveals a surprise twist

August 23, 2016

In solving one mystery—the genetic roots of benign brain tumors called meningiomas—a team of scientists led by Yale researchers stumbled upon an even greater one: How is it possible that two of the mutations linked to ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.