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Patenting Human Genes No Longer Fair Play

Written by Alexander McIsaac - Work Experience on 17 June 2013

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An interesting case was decided in the US Supreme Court earlier this month, whereby the court unanimously ruled that human genes could no longer be patented. The ruling represents a major shift in the law, overturning decades of patent awards by the US government and could have significant effects on the future of the biotechnology and drug industry.

The case arose when a Utah based genetics company called Myriad Inc. received a patent allowing them to control access to two genes linked to breast cancer, known as BRCA1 and BRCA2.  The patent gave the company the right to limit others from doing research or diagnostic testing of the genes.  The issuing of this patent created a significant amount of backlash from woman’s rights activists and members in the scientific community for creating barriers to scientific progression and allowing Myriad to create a monopoly on testing procedures for the genes.

In their decision the Supreme Court asserted that DNA segments are a product of nature and cannot be patented simply on the grounds that a gene has been isolated.  Laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas lay outside patent protection.  Although this decision has been seen by many as extremely positive in that it removes major barriers to medical innovation allowing more scientists to take on research on these genes without fear of being sued, there are some that see it as a double edged sword.  UK patent lawyer Dr Gareth Williams said: "It would be an understatement to describe this ruling as disappointing news for worldwide biotech research.  It represents a volte-face in the approach to intellectual property rights around genetics and its effects will be felt well beyond US borders.”   UK patent lawyers have expressed concern that this US ruling will deter many firms from pursuing research as there are no longer the same financial incentives.

Whatever the result, the case demonstrates the monumental impact intellectual property law can have on shaping entire industries.

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