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Court proves sage in gene-patent ruling

To most laypersons, it defies common sense that a private company could patent for profit a naturally occurring part of the human body. Fortunately, all nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court felt the same way.

They ruled that human genes, specifically the breast-cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, cannot be patented. American Civil Liberties Union attorney Sandra Park said, “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.”

Myriad Genetics had held an exclusive patent on a form of gene that can predict an increased risk of genetic cancer, a key factor in whether a woman decides to have her breasts or ovaries removed.

“Most women who want testing must pay its price – $3,340 for the breast-cancer analysis and $700 for an additional test, called BART, which picks up a genetic link in about 10 percent of women who test negative the first time,” USA Today says.

Plaintiffs say they hope that lifting the patents will lead to greater access to genetic testing and lower costs.

The industry had argued that without patent protection, and the profits from that protection, there was less incentive to invest in research and development.

The court praised Myriad for isolating the genes, but said Justice Sonia Sotomayor: “In isolation, it has no value. It’s just nature sitting there.”

The court did rule that certain kinds of genetic tests may still be patented. These involve types of DNA that are not naturally occurring.

The court’s ruling was straightforward and, while finding that naturally occurring parts of the body cannot be patented, left plenty of other areas open for potentially profitable research.