(William West/AFP/Getty Images)
In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday morning that human genes are not patentable.
The case centered around Myriad Genetics, the holder of patents on two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. Some mutations of these genes are associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. For women with a strong family history of these cancers, the only place they could be tested was Myriad Genetics, which sometimes charged more than $3,000 for the test.
Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group based in San Francisco, was a plaintiff in the case, and executive director Karuna Jaggar sounded jubilant in a phone call Thursday morning.
“From our perspective, these patents never should have been granted in the first place,” Jaggar said. “There’s no question that DNA is a product of nature, and so it’s very affirming to see the court rule in our favor.”
BRCA1 and 2 mutations became international news when actress Angelina Jolie revealed that she’d had a preventive double mastectomy after testing showed that she had a specific mutation that put her at very high risk of developing breast cancer.
In arguments at the Supreme Court Monday, justices appeared skeptical about patenting human genes.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been granting parents on human genes for nearly 30 years. This is the first case questioning that premise to reach the Supreme Court. At the heart of the case are two genes associated with breast cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA 2. People with certain mutations in these genes have a significantly higher risk for breast, ovarian and other cancers.
Opponents of patenting human genes say genes are products of nature and therefore cannot be patented. Myriad Genetics, which holds the patent on the genes, say that once genes are isolated from the body and processed they are no longer a product of nature.
The Associated Press captured the back and forth:
Justices attempted to break the argument down to an everyday level by discussing things like chocolate chip cookies, baseball bats and jungle plants.
[Gregory A.] Castanias, the Myriad lawyer, argued that the justices could think about the gene question like a baseball bat. “A baseball bat doesn’t exist until it’s isolated from a tree. But that’s still the product of human invention to decide where to begin the bat and where to end the bat,” he said.
That didn’t work for Chief Justice John Roberts. Continue reading
It’s not the genes themselves, but mutations that can put women at higher risk of breast cancer.(Getty Images)
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that asks a central question: Can you patent a human gene?
Are genes naturally occurring and therefore not patentable by law? Or, since DNA must be extracted and processed to be read, is it no longer a natural product and so indeed can be patented, as human genes have been for 30 years?
Over at KQED Science, reporter Lauren Sommer has a great breakdown of the issues in this case – not only the ethical questions but also the business angle, so critical to the Bay Area’s thriving biotechnology industry.
Everyone has these genes — women and men alike — but the question is whether you have a mutation in one or both of these genes that inhibits tumor suppression function.
But let’s take a step back and look at the genes at the heart of the case, BRCA1 and BRCA2.
According to the National Cancer Institute
, these genes help keep cells’ genetic material in order. They handle what’s called tumor suppression.
Everyone has these genes — women and men alike — but the question is whether you have a mutation in one or both of these genes that inhibits the tumor suppression function. With impaired tumor suppression, you’re at higher risk for cancer. Women with certain types of BRCA mutations are five times more likely to develop breast cancer and at least 10 times more likely to develop ovarian cancer. Both women and men with these mutations are also at increased risk for other cancers, including pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer and melanoma. Continue reading