US Supreme Court to Hear Case on Patentability of Human Genes

The US Supreme court decided today to hear a case on the patentability on human genes.  Myriad Genetics Inc, a biotechnology company, is seeking a patent on two isolated genes that can be used to detect the risk of certain hereditary cancers.  On August 16th, the Federal Court of Appeals ruled that Myriad did have the right to patent the genes, but disallowed it from patenting their methodology for comparing and analyzing genes.

The appellants are a diverse group of medical professionals and associations, led by the Association for Molecular Pathology.  They’re supported by a number of groups, including the AARP, the American Medical Association and the American Society of Human Genetics.  The appellants case is being carried by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Myriad’s critics argue that their patenting of the genes would prohibit standard clinical testing of the genes in questions, which would inhibit both research and access to medical care.  Myriad argues that refusing them the patent, the court is slowing the progress of medical science and affecting the provision of medical services to millions of individuals.

In an interesting application of capitalism to medical science, Myraid’s chief executive officer said in a statement that innovations like the isolation of the genes require huge investments.  Without a patent system that allows the company to profit from or protect their inventions, there is little motivation to spend the money and effort on researching new areas in the first place.

Dr. James Watson, who aided in the discovery of the structure of DNA, argued that “DNA’s  importance flows from its ability to encode and transmit the instructions for creating humans.  Life’s instructions ought not be controlled by legal monopolies…”  It does seem to be a classic case of an amoral corporation seeking profit over public benefit, and the court’s ruling will undoubtedly have major consequences for the future of medical science.

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