Big news from the east side of Capitol Hill: It's not okay to patent genetic material taken from the human body. Or at least, it's not okay in the eyes of the nation's highest court. SCOTUS took on the controversial and somewhat futuristic case earlier this year, and with all the torrid discussion about updating all patent laws, everyone knew that this decision would be a landmark one.
It wasn't a tough one for the Supreme Court, though. In deciding on a case focused on Myriad Genetics, a company that built its empire by isolating and patenting two genes that indicate a higher risk of breast cancer, all nine judges voted against allowing human genes to be patented. Synthetically produced genes, however, are totally up for grabs and can continue to enjoy the legal protection of our nation's patent laws. Just don't expect Uncle Sam to swing his intellectual property rights sword to defend your Frankenstein, though. That's just wrong.
Not everybody feels that way, though. A number of companies like Myriad Genetics—a while industry, in fact—have depended on gene patents for their business model. Thanks to its once-exclusive rights to the BRCA1 and BRCA2, the two genes its founder identified as indicative of breast cancer risk, Myriad's grown to be a $2.1 billion company over the course of the past two decades. They did that on the backs of countless patients who paid nearly $3,500 for a simple test to determine if they carried the genes that put them at risk. Now anybody will be able to offer that test.
So this Supreme Court decision is good news for patients everywhere. "Myriad's exclusive control has led to the misdiagnosis of patients and has precluded the deployment of improved genetic tests," Lori Andrews, author of a dissenting brief from the American Medical Association to the Supreme Court, told Reuters earlier this year. "The overabundance of gene patents is a large and looming threat to personalized medicine. Individuals have an innate right to their own genome, or to allow their doctor to look at that genome, just like the lungs or kidneys."
Sounds perfectly reasonable doesn't it? The scientific community should think so. Without the impediment of unreasonable patents, researchers will gain easier access to the human genome and, ostensibly, a leg up on diseases like cancer that threaten peoples' lives. The pharmaceutical industry is obviously less thrilled since these same patents enable them to charge thousands of dollars for very simple tests like the one invented by Myriad. Meanwhile, the spiritual community must be thrilled. I mean, can you think of anything more sacrilegious than the buying and selling of human genes?