Are Genes Ownable? Challenging Patents on Breast and Ovarian Cancer Genes in the Supreme Court
Editor's Note: Since my mother died from ovarian cancer we have a particular interest in this case and the implications for those who want or need to be tested for BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations. However, this case, as noted in the ACLU release below, has significant implications for scientific research, second opinions and medical care beyond the genes cited in the case.
The US Supreme Court heard arguments on April 15th in a case seeking to invalidate patents on two genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.(Illustration is of Breast Cancer 1, Early Onset from Wikipedia)
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) on behalf of researchers, genetic counselors, patients, breast cancer and women's health groups, and medical professional associations representing 150,000 geneticists, pathologists and laboratory professionals. The patents allow a Utah company, Myriad Genetics, to control access to the genes, thereby enabling them to limit others from doing research or diagnostic testing of the genes, which can be crucial for individuals making important medical decisions.
"Myriad did not invent the human genes at issue in this case, and they should not be allowed to patent them. The patent system was designed to encourage innovation, not stifle scientific research and the free exchange of ideas, which is what these patents do," said attorney Chris Hansen of the ACLU, who argued the case.
A federal district court invalidated all of the challenged patents in 2010. In 2012, a federal appeals court ruled for the second time that the patents on the genes were valid. Its 2-1 decision followed a Supreme Court order directing the appeals court to reconsider its initial decision in light of a related patent case decided by the Supreme Court last spring.
"The Patent Office's policy of granting companies complete control over portions of our bodies is both morally offensive and a clear violation of the law," said Daniel B. Ravicher, executive director of PUBPAT and co-counsel in the lawsuit. "Genes are the foundation of life, they are created by nature, not by man, and that is why we were here today at the Supreme Court to make sure they are not controlled by corporations through the patent system."
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