Supreme Court Rules Against Human Gene Patent

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that human genes are off-limits for patent protection. University of Chicago law professor Jonathan Masur breaks down the decision on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.

We spoke with Kayhan Parsi, a professor of Bioethics & Health Policy at the Loyola University Chicago’s Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy. Here is what he has to say about the Supreme Court’s ruling on gene patenting.

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What is the impact of the ruling against the gene patenting on the medical community?

After reviewing the case, I think it’s amazing the amount of reaction to the case; and in general people are pleased because the court gave a clear indication of what is patentable and what is not. The court holds that naturally produced DNA is not patentable but complementary DNA (cDNA) is patentable. There is a distinction between locating DNA and creating synthetic DNA.

I think I said that the case is interesting because both Myriad and the ACLU were pleased with the results of the case. We never see both parties pleased with the outcome. I think this is good news for the medical community and for people who need tests for BRCA1 and BRCA2. This is not a home run, but we have a base hit.  For families and practitioners, this is a step in right direction.

Will the new ruling help to lower the cost for genetic testing?

The hope for years has been to lower costs. Joanna Rudnick, director and producer of In the Family interviewed women with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, and the CEO of Myriad Gary Schoolnik, and at that time it still cost thousands of dollars.

Testing is still expensive now, but the hope is that the price will go down. With this decision, testing will be less expensive and Myriad won’t have a tight grip hold on the whole domain of genetic testing.

This case started with other parties offering BRCA testing at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, and Myriad sent cease and desist letters to them. The hope is that others will offer this test and see what happens. Now that there is this Supreme Court decision, we might see patents do more ingenious things.

Could companies still manipulate the wording of patents to get around the ruling?

There has been a history of creative patenting in the media. Look at the way the patent laws are structured. They have to be novel, and not obvious and useful. Nature can’t be patented, it has to be invented. Some parties will try to be creative and won’t be isolating DNA, but creating new synthetic sequences.

Will this increase competition in the genetic patenting business?

The problem with Myriad from the beginning was that it was the only patent holder, and cornered the market, and prices remained where it is. More competition will reduce the price. The challenges with health care are that it is impervious to normal supply and demand.

Any last comments on the gene patent laws?

It seems like a sensible court decision. Some are upset and wanted the courts to go further and make a stronger statement. The ethical challenge of genes is taking something from nature and then making profits from it.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Read the 9-0 opinion on Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. with annotations below, and read Myriad's response.

Christine Hurley contributed to this report.

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