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Human DNA Cannot Be Patented, Says U.S. Supreme Court
June 14, 2013
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Photo: National Human Genome Research Institute/Reuters

The U.S. Supreme Court has handed down a big decision - ruling that human DNA cannot be patented.

"We hold that a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated," said Justice Clarence Thomas in writing the court's decision.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been giving patents on human genes for nearly 30 years. This ruling, which was unanimous, reverses that.

At the centre of the case was a company called Myriad Genetics Inc, which held patents on two genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer.

Myriad argued it had the right to a patent because it had isolated the DNA from the body, therefore making it a product of human ingenuity.

The company used the isolated DNA for a specialized cancer test known as the BRACAnalysis test.

The faint white blotch in the tube (at right) is DNA removed from a human egg (centre)

That's the test Angelina Jolie had done, which is designed to look for mutations in genes that might increase the risk of developing cancer.

Jolie, of course, was found to have a higher risk so she made a decision to have a double mastectomy.

The high court disagreed with Myriad's argument, ruling that you can't patent something that can be found inside the human body, or comes from nature.

In the judgement, Thomas wrote "genes and the information they encode area not patent eligible... simply because they have been isolated from the surrounding genetic material."

At the same time, however, the court did rule that synthetically created DNA (known as complementary DNA) can be patented "because it is not naturally occurring".

All of this could have a big impact on the medical and biotechnology industries, as many companies say they have billions of dollars invested in years of gene research.

Those companies say they need patents of this kind to make a profit and recoup the investment they make in research and development.

Without that incentive, they say scientific and medical breakthroughs/discoveries wouldn't happen.

A U.S. researcher monitors a DNA sequencing machine

However, in the judgement, Justice Thomas said there were other ways for Myriad to make money off its discovery.

"Had Myriad created an innovative method of manipulating genes while searching for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, it could possibly have sought a method patent," he wrote.

This case started in 2009 with a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union on whether companies should be able to patent genes.

Sandra Park, a lawyer for the ACLU, welcomed the decision - saying it opens the door to broader research.

"Because of this ruling, patients will have greater access to genetic testing and scientists can engage in research on these genes without fear of being sued," she told the BBC.

Via The Associated Press

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