Supreme Court Accepts Gene Patenting Case

In the long run, this case may have greater influence than many of the higher profile cases on which the Court decides.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to decide whether human genes can be patented, a hotly contested issue with broad practical and ethical consequences for the future of gene-based medicine for millions of people worldwide.

The nation’s highest court in a brief order agreed to review a case over whether Myriad Genetics Inc may patent two genes linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

In a 2-1 ruling on Aug. 16, a panel of the U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., upheld the biotechnology company’s right to patent “isolated” genes that account for most inherited forms of the two cancers.

That ruling also denied Myriad’s effort to patent methods of “comparing” or “analyzing” DNA sequences.

The appeal against Myriad and the University of Utah Research Foundation was being pursued by a variety of medical associations and doctors, led by the Association for Molecular Pathology. Their case is being handled by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union.

There are many issues at play here. Consider this one: gene patents like these held by Myriad can be used (and are used) to deny researchers the right to conduct research related to the patented genes (i.e., breast cancer research) unless they pay the patent holder whatever fee the corporation wishes to charge.

From both ethical and economic perspectives, this is a most controversial topic. I hope the Court decides that genes are the common heritage of all humanity and are not patentable under any circumstances.