For more than 30 years, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been awarding patents on human genes. But Thursday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a patent could not be placed on naturally occurring human genes, because researchers didn’t “create” them.
Those who are praising the decision believe it will benefit both the progress of research and protect the human body “from the assertion of private property rights.”
The Salt Lake City-based company Myriad Genetics Inc. sought to patent genes at the center of its proprietary tests for increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. One of its tests for a gene linked to breast cancer, specifically, was the only one on the market due to the company’s patents.
But the company was challenged, leading to the Supreme Court’s review.
The high court ruled that genes naturally found in the body cannot be patented, but that synthetically created genetic material, called cDNA, can be patented. That leaves an opening for Myriad to continue making money, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the court’s majority decision.
“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,” Thomas wrote, countering Myriad’s argument that because it had isolated the genes, they were patentable.
The ACLU, which was a plaintiff in the case, celebrated the high court’s ruling, saying it opens the door for “further understanding how we can better treat and prevent diseases.”
“Most of the industry is focused on using genes as a starting point to create new tools, tests, and therapeutics. While all of these applications could be patented, the genes themselves should remain in the public storehouse of knowledge, for scientists at universities and corporations to freely study and use,” Sandra Park with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project wrote.
Park did note that the ACLU disagreed with the decision to allow patents on cDNA, but it still believes the Supreme Court was right in protecting human genetics.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling shields parts of the human body from the assertion of private property rights. And because cDNA is not required for genetic testing, laboratories will now be able to offer testing of the BRCA genes to their patients,” Park wrote.
The New York Times pointed out that biotech companies might be less inclined to invest in research that isolates genes due to a lack of incentive that comes with patenting.
Shares of diagnostic test maker jumped Thursday after the decision. In midday trading Thursday, Myriad shares were up 10.3 percent, or $3.48, at to $37.40. They had earlier set a 52-week high at $38.27, with trading volume already more than four times the daily average of 1.1 million shares of Myriad.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.