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Breaking: Supreme Court Says Genes Cannot Be Patented

DNA

Readers, we’ll be discussing this on Radio Boston today at 3 p.m.; any particular comments or questions to be mentioned on air? Please write them in the Comments below.

From the New York Times here:

Human genes may not be patented, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

“A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a unanimous court. But manipulating a gene to create something not found in nature is an invention eligible for patent protection.

The case concerned patents held by Myriad Genetics, a Utah company, on genes that correlate with increased risk of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

The central question for the justices in the case, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, No. 12-398, was whether isolated genes are “products of nature” that may not be patented or “human-made inventions” eligible for patent protection.

And its take on the implications:

The court’s ruling will shape the course of scientific research and medical testing, and it may alter the willingness of businesses to invest in the expensive work of isolating and understanding genetic material.

From The Wall Street Journal:

The court was handing down one of its most significant rulings in the age of molecular medicine, deciding who may own the fundamental building blocks of life.

The case involved Myriad Genetics Inc., MYGN +10.29%which holds patents related to two genes, known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, that can indicate whether a woman has a heightened risk of developing breast cancer or ovarian cancer.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court, said the genes Myriad isolated are products of nature, which aren’t eligible for patents.

“Myriad did not create anything,” Justice Thomas wrote in an 18-page opinion. “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.”

Even if a discovery is brilliant or groundbreaking, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s patentable, the court said.

However, the ruling wasn’t a complete loss for Myriad. The court said that DNA molecules synthesized in a laboratory were eligible for patent protection. Myriad’s shares soared after the court’s ruling.

Further reading: Continue reading

Opinion: Why Our Genes Should Not Be Patented

Catherine Corman and her father are both BRCA carriers. (Courtesy of Catherine Corman)

Catherine Corman and her father are both BRCA carriers. (Courtesy of Catherine Corman)

By Cathy Corman
Guest Blogger

My father had a radical mastectomy in 1975.

He’d visited a general surgeon to check an eraser-sized lump he’d noticed in his left “breast,” which turned out to be malignant. Researchers in the 1980s pinpointed two kinds of genetic mutations that dramatically increase the odds of developing breast and ovarian cancer. They named these mutations BRCA 1 and 2.

By 1996, Myriad Genetics, a company in Utah, was offering a test that could identify people with BRCA mutations. I strong-armed my father into taking the test and held my breath as we waited for results. We learned that we are both BRCA carriers. For my dad, the result was retrospectively predictive. He had the mutation and developed breast cancer. For me, a healthy 37-year-old mother of young triplets, the implications weren’t so clear. I weighed my options and rolled the dice. By the fall of 1998, I’d had elective surgery to remove my thus-far cancer-free breasts and ovaries.

Along with the rest of the nation, I was on pins and needles last week listening to arguments in front of the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of “Obamacare.” I was also holding my breath, waiting for the decision the justices delivered last week concerning a challenge to Myriad’s monopoly on BRCA DNA and BRCA testing. Researchers, geneticists, and the American Civil Liberties Union asked justices on the Supreme Court to reconsider an appellate court’s ruling that upheld Myriad’s patent of the genetic material. The justices sent the case back to the appellate court and asked it to revisit its decision in light of a related case. This might bring good news or bad for those of us carrying BRCA mutations, but, in any case, the implications of the decision will reach far beyond the small number of us genetically predisposed to reproductive cancers.

Families with histories of any number of inherited diseases — from heart failure to diabetes to mental illness to autoimmune disorders – will increasingly share their DNA with researchers looking for genetic clues. If companies can patent our DNA as Myriad has done, they can, under current law, prevent us from receiving affordable testing and innovative, effective treatments for diseases that have the potential to take our lives. Continue reading

Daily Rounds: Money Fueled Alcohol Tax Repeal; Surprising Shift On Gene Patents; Biogen Cuts; Election Effects On Health Reform

Money fuels repeal of alcohol tax – The Boston Globe “The alcohol industry, which contributed the vast majority of the nearly $2.5 million to the Vote Yes on One Committee, far outspent the opposition. Beer giant Anheuser-Busch contributed $88,110, and the Beer Distributors of Massachusetts gave nearly $300,000. The Committee Against Repeal of the Alcohol Tax didn’t even raise $200,000, according to the latest finance reports filed with the state.” (Boston Globe)

Feds Surprise Biotech Industry With Gene Patent Rule : NPR “The Justice Department is proposing to overturn 30 years of legal precedent by sharply limiting patents on genes. The government surprised just about everyone who follows this issue when it suggested this change of policy in a court filing last week.” (npr.org)

Biogen to ax 650 workers – BostonHerald.com The giant Weston-based biotechnology firm said it expects to see a total savings of $300 million due to a combination of moves, including shutting down offices in Waltham, Wellesley and San Diego. The company also said it will nix its cardiovascular and cancer-treatment research programs. (Boston Herald)

And about those midterm elections:

Medical News: Obama Will Consider ACA Modifications – in Washington-Watch, Reform from MedPage Today But, he continued, “If the Republicans have ideas on how to improve our healthcare system, if they want to suggest modifications that would deliver faster and more effective reform, I’m happy to consider some of those ideas.” (medpagetoday.com)

Voters oust half of House Democrats who opposed health-care law “Did Democrats dig their own graves by passing the unpopular health-care bill last year? That remains uncertain: The midterm elections Tuesday provided zero clarity on this often-debated question.” (The Washington Post)

To Save Money, Save the Health Care Act – NYTimes.com “If the newly elected representatives and senators are truly concerned about rising health care costs, they should work to deploy the law’s cost-containment measures fully rather than try to repeal them.” (The New York Times)