3Qs: Supreme Court rules human genes can't be patented

June 17, 2013 by Greg St. Martin, Northeastern University
Credit: Thinkstock

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision Thursday that naturally occurring human genes can't be patented. The case centered on Myriad Genetics Inc.'s patents on popular breast and ovarian cancer tests. These tests were also recently thrust into the global spotlight when actress Angelina Jolie revealed she underwent a double mastectomy after such a test found her at higher risk for developing breast cancer. In the case, Myriad argued that the DNA it isolated for its cancer tests were patentable, but the court ruled otherwise. The court did, however, rule that synthetically created genetic material, called "complementary" DNA or "cDNA," can be patented. We asked Michael Bennett, an associate professor in the School of Law who studies patent law and whose research interests lie at the nexus of law and emerging technologies, to examine the impact of the ruling.

What was your reaction to the ruling?

The ruling did not surprise me; it is pretty straightforward. The basic question before the court was whether a naturally occurring product, what we sometimes refer to as a "manufacture of nature," is patentable subject matter. What we're really talking about here is information that is created by "nature" and then discovered by researchers. U.S. patent law allows inventors and discoverers of new and useful compositions of matter to seek . But an exception exists for a product of nature. So the ruling found that genetic information encoded in cannot be patented simply because it has been isolated or discovered, as such information falls into that exceptional category.

What impact will this ruling have on researchers, patients, and the law?

For researchers, it's reasonable to imagine that we'll see more effort in biotechnology and genomics labs to find genetic information related to any number of maladies that grow out of . There's a fair amount of work being done already, but this ruling removes a serious barrier to its growth.

Patients—especially those wanting to reap the benefits of diagnostic exams like those based on Myriad's patents—should expect to see more providers offering similar, and maybe more effective, diagnostic services enter the marketplace. If market theory holds, we should also see the costs of these exams come down. And from a legal perspective, we'll certainly be updating our intellectual property and syllabi. We've been talking about "purifications" of naturally created products as patentable subject matter, but in the wake of this ruling that line of cases is probably on shaky ground.

While Myriad can no longer hold a patent on isolated parts of naturally occurring human genes, the ruling made it clear that companies can still patent novel mechanisms for manipulating genes. How could this ruling be viewed positively and negatively from an innovation policy perspective?

This ruling gets down to a fundamental question for innovation policy. For those who believe that higher rates of innovation and largely unfettered technological development contribute to society in a strictly positive fashion, this ruling is a good thing. We've effectively seen a barrier to research knocked over today. However, those who don't think that continuous innovation predominantly improves society will likely see a downside—namely the likely creation of yet more scientific knowledge and even more complex technological devices and systems, all of which are so arcane and expensive to create, maintain, and use that their societal benefits are at best ambiguous.

Explore further: US court says human genes cannot be patented (Update 4)

Related Stories

US court says human genes cannot be patented (Update 4)

June 13, 2013
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously threw out attempts to patent human genes, siding with advocates who say the multibillion-dollar biotechnology industry should not have exclusive control over genetic information ...

Patenting the human genome

May 24, 2013
Can human genes be patented? That was the question posed by Alan J. Snyder, vice president and associate provost for research and graduate studies at Lehigh, and Lee Kaplan, scientific director of cellular and molecular genetics ...

Are human genes patentable?

April 11, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—On April 15, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, a case that could answer the question, "Under what conditions, if any, are isolated human ...

Court: Can human genes be patented? (Update)

April 15, 2013
The Supreme Court grapples Monday with the question of whether human genes can be patented, and the ultimate answer could reshape U.S. medical research, the fight against diseases like breast and ovarian cancer and the multi-billion ...

US top court to hear case on gene patents

April 13, 2013
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.

Recommended for you

Peers' genes may help friends stay in school, new study finds

January 18, 2018
While there's scientific evidence to suggest that your genes have something to do with how far you'll go in school, new research by a team from Stanford and elsewhere says the DNA of your classmates also plays a role.

Two new breast cancer genes emerge from Lynch syndrome gene study

January 18, 2018
Researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian have identified two new breast cancer genes. Having one of the genes—MSH6 and PMS2—approximately doubles a woman's risk of developing breast ...

A centuries-old math equation used to solve a modern-day genetics challenge

January 18, 2018
Researchers developed a new mathematical tool to validate and improve methods used by medical professionals to interpret results from clinical genetic tests. The work was published this month in Genetics in Medicine.

Can mice really mirror humans when it comes to cancer?

January 18, 2018
A new Michigan State University study is helping to answer a pressing question among scientists of just how close mice are to people when it comes to researching cancer.

Group recreates DNA of man who died in 1827 despite having no body to work with

January 16, 2018
An international team of researchers led by a group with deCODE Genetics, a biopharmaceutical company in Iceland, has partly recreated the DNA of a man who died in 1827, despite having no body to take tissue samples from. ...

Epigenetics study helps focus search for autism risk factors

January 16, 2018
Scientists have long tried to pin down the causes of autism spectrum disorder. Recent studies have expanded the search for genetic links from identifying genes toward epigenetics, the study of factors that control gene expression ...

0 comments

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.