Supreme Court Asks: Can Human Genes Be Patented?
Same-sex marriage got huge headlines at the Supreme Court last month, but in the world of science and medicine, the case being argued on Monday is far more important. The lawsuit deals with a truly 21st century issue — whether human genes may be patented.
Myriad Genetics, a Utah biotechnology company, discovered and isolated two genes — BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 — that are highly associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad patented its discovery, giving it a 20-year monopoly over use of the genes for research, diagnostics and treatment. A group of researchers, medical groups and patients sued, challenging the patent as invalid.
There is no way to overstate the importance of this case to the future of science and medicine. In the view of Myriad and its supporters in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, patents are the keys to making these medical discoveries possible. Their opponents, including leading medical groups and Nobel Prize-winning scientists, contend that Myriad’s patent improperly puts a lock on research and medical diagnostic testing.
The U.S. patent system, authorized in the Constitution, gives temporary economic incentives to inventors to advance science. The general rules of the patent system have been established in statutes and Supreme Court case law for over 150 years. You can’t patent a product of nature or a law of nature. It doesn’t matter that the task was difficult or costly. Nature is immune to patents. So, even though it may have taken Einstein a long time to figure out that E=mc2, he couldn’t have patented that law of nature.