Who Owns Your Genes? Supreme Court Will Decide
For 30 years, companies have been patenting human genes. Yes, the very genetic material of our bodies, of our DNA, albeit in isolated forms. For longer than that, debates have been incessant — in the scientific community, between businesses, and in the courts — over whether or not this practice is legal, let alone ethical. Earlier this month, an Australian court heard yet another case about the legality of gene patenting, ultimately defending the practice. This spring, media attention over the controversy will shift back to the U.S. as a similar case (originally heard in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York) will be heard by the Supreme Court.
Last month, the Australian Federal Court ruled that isolated genetic material is patentable in Australia because the isolation involved requires skills and expertise that make it akin to manufacturing a product. In other words, the court ruled that human genes, if successfully isolated from their natural state, may rightfully be patented — in this case, by Myriad Genetics (NASDAQ:MYGN). The company holds patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which have been linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. The patent means that Myriad Genetics — and the Australian company it licenses the patents to, Genetic Technologies (PINK:GNTLF) — have the exclusive right to run expensive tests for these particular genes, which is what caused Cancer Voices Australia and a breast cancer survivor named Yvonne D’Arcy to file a suit against Myriad Genetics. The case’s outcome is good news for Myriad, but this spring, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case on gene patenting and determine whether this practice is legal or not in the USA. The outcome could have very wide-reaching implications.