Human gene patent overturned30th March 2010
A federal court ruling in the US has invalidated a patent made on human genes by a company from the state of Utah.
The company, Myriad Genetics, said that the ruling should have little effect on its operations.
The court decision involved two gene patents which the company claimed to be able to use in order to detect breast and ovarian cancers in women.
The company patented the two genes and proceeded to sell gene test kits for about US$4,000 a piece.
But in the US, there have already been many Supreme Court rulings supporting the judicial principle that purifying a product of nature does not make it patentable.
Though common sense would tell people that they do indeed own their own genetic material, the ruling could have a lasting impact on the development of the biotechnology industry.
People challenging the patent included the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), several women who suffered from breast or ovarian cancer, and genetic researchers.
Daniel B. Ravicher, executive director of Public Patent Foundation, said that the court correctly saw that companies should not be able to own the rights to a piece of the human genome, and that genes were not inventions.
Myriad Genetics was formed in 1991 by a researcher at the University of Utah.
With the investment of venture capitalists, the company used genes associated with various types of cancers in order to manufacture tests that it then patented.
However, since the tests relied exclusively on the existence of the genes in question, they were the only basis for a patent.
The lawsuit said that patenting the genes was stopping important research, and that other scientists and companies should have the opportunity to develop similar tests.
Peter Meldrum, president and CEO of Myriad, said he was confident that the Court of Appeals would reverse the Supreme Court's decision and uphold his patent.
He said that prohibiting companies from patenting the genes they encountered would be very bad for the biotechnology industry.
Kevin Noonan, a patent lawyer and molecular biologist who helped Myriad draft its patents, said that patents were a tool for getting investments and for putting companies ahead of their competitors.
But Chris Hansen, an ACLU attorney, said that the human genome, like the structure of blood, air or water, was discovered, not created.
He said that there were endless amounts of information on genes that begged for further discovery, and that gene patents put up unacceptable barriers to the free exchange of ideas.
In the 152-page ruling, US Court Judge Robert Sweet wrote that DNA's existence in an 'isolated' form did not alter its fundamental qualities or its information.
Jesse Reynolds, a policy analyst at the nonprofit Center for Genetics and Society, said that evidence showed human gene patents were doing more harm than good.
He said that the realisation that products of nature could not be patented would have profound consequences for the biotechnology industry.
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