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Corporate Control of Human Genes Before Supreme Court

Corporation's claim of ownership on human gene threatens "untold cost" to research, medical treatment and patients

Lauren McCauley, staff writer

(Image: ACLU)

The Supreme Court will take up the question on Monday as to whether human genes can be patented allowing corporations to extend their grasp and claim private property rights over the essential building block of human life.

The defendant in the case Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. is claiming to "own" two genes related to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, BRCA 1 and BRCA 2. Myriad Genetics argues that the genes become their "invention" once they are "isolated," or removed from the cell and therefore they have the right to stop anyone from using these genes, whether for clinical or research purposes.

"The Patent Office's policy of granting companies complete control over portions of our bodies is both morally offensive and a clear violation of the law," said the suit's co-counsel Daniel B. Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT). "Genes are the foundation of life, they are created by nature, not by man, and that is why we were here today at the Supreme Court to make sure they are not controlled by corporations through the patent system."

"Myriad did not invent the human genes at issue in this case, and they should not be allowed to patent them. The patent system was designed to encourage innovation, not stifle scientific research and the free exchange of ideas, which is what these patents do," added ACLU attorney, Chris Hansen, in a statement.

The impact of this argument has "broad implications for scientific research," writes SCOTUSblog, but also for the millions of patients who are dependent on accurate and efficient testing.

"I think that this patent, which has jacked up the prices and made testing more difficult in many circumstances, may be preventing hundreds and maybe thousands and thousands of people from learning that they are at high risk for these terrible disease," said Cancer Genetic Counselor, Ellen Matloff.

In 2009, an initial suit was filed in a district court by an alliance of medical associations, physicians, researchers, women's health groups along with six patients who have been diagnosed with or are at risk of a hereditary version of breast or ovarian cancer. The case won on the argument that the isolated genes are not "materially different from genes before extraction," and that by granting a patent on them would enable "the patenting of nature itself, at untold cost to scientific research, medical treatment and patients."

However, after being challenged in a federal appeals court, the case was lost after a 2-1 split decision.

"The implications of the argument are breathtaking," writes the ACLU's Sandra Park. "What would prevent patents on a kidney removed from the body, or a leaf snapped from a tree?" She adds:

When scientists identify something in nature, like an element or a gene, they deserve praise. But what they find belongs to the storehouse of knowledge, for all to use as the basis for true inventions, such as lithium batteries, genetic tests, or drugs. We should not be forced to rely on a single entity to develop all possible applications of that product of nature.

Following oral arguments on Monday, a court decision is expected by the end of June.


The ACLU posted this video to exemplify the "untold costs" of these patent protections.

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