Genes are a component of nature, so it would seem logical that the molecules that are passed from generation to generation and shape our biological traits can’t be slapped with a patent and bought and sold in the marketplace.
The U.S. Supreme Court has offered strong and sensible agreement with this proposition. In a rare unanimous ruling handed down last week, the nation’s highest court agreed that human genes can’t be patented. This should help open doors to medical research and bring down the price of genetic tests that, until now, have been costly and out of reach for many who could benefit from them.
The court’s ruling came in response to a suit filed against the Utah company Myriad Genetics Inc. by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation. The suit argued that Myriad could not patent two genes related to breast and ovarian cancer. The decision, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, stated that “a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated.” He also pointed out, “Myriad did not create anything. … 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.”
The court did say, however, that if Myriad or any other company crafted a synthetic version of a gene, then it could be patented.
Myriad’s stranglehold on the two genes moved out of the dry realm of bioethics and into the domain of People magazine when actress Angelina Jolie revealed last month that she had undergone tests provided by Myriad which determined that she had the genes that put her at high risk for developing breast cancer. As a result, she underwent a double mastectomy. Of course, to someone of Jolie’s wealth, paying $3,000 or more for a genetic test is the equivalent of tossing a few coins in a fountain.
Now, thanks to the court’s decision, those same tests will be open to people for whom $3,000 is real money.