Nature gets the credit


It isn't every day that the U.S. Supreme Court issues a unanimous decision. Recently, though, the high court was united in its judgment that human genes can’t be patented. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion, which went against the financial interests of a major biotech company.

The court ruling was a setback for Myriad Genetics, which claimed that its patent on BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes should be respected. These genes, when isolated, can be tested for mutations that indicate an increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers. Myriad wanted to maintain its patent and its exclusive right to perform the tests for these mutations.

Biotech scientists argue that issuing patents for naturally occurring processes not only is contrary to common sense, but also imposes a high cost on research. Opportunistic companies raced to patent thousands of genes the way Myriad had, in the hope of stumbling upon a similar monopoly.

“Myriad did not create anything,” Justice Thomas wrote. “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.”

Researchers say the cost of BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing could fall as much as 75 percent now that Myriad’s patent has been invalidated. This is great news for the 250,000 patients who rely on these tests each year.