US Supreme Court hears arguments in gene-patent case

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The United States’ highest court heard arguments today in a long-running debate over the validity of patents on human genes.


US Supreme Court justices will not issue a decision until later this year — probably near the end of June — but today’s questioning suggested that they will find isolated human DNA ineligible for patents. The justices did seem inclined, however, to protect patents on cDNA, which is DNA synthesized using RNA as a template. (cDNA is often shorter and easier to manipulate in the lab than genomic DNA, and many patents on DNA sequences claim cDNAs.)

The case has been working its way through the courts since 2009, when the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation filed a complaint against Myriad Genetics, a medical diagnostics company based in Salt Lake City, Utah, that holds patents on two genes related to breast and other cancers. The groups filed the complaint on behalf of patients, physicians and researchers who argued that the patents, which claimed isolated BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, cover a product of nature and are therefore invalid.

In this morning’s arguments, the justices did not spend much time challenging the lawyer for the plaintiffs on that assertion, noted SCOTUS blog publisher Tom Goldstein, who hosted a panel discussion after the session. Instead, many of their questions focused on whether invalidating the patents would squelch the biotechnology industry, or if companies would have other avenues — such as patents on methods or cDNAs — available to protect their investment in research. That, said Goldstein, suggested the justices were testing the scope of their ruling, rather than whether the plaintiff’s argument was right or wrong: “I would be very surprised if the Supreme Court says isolated gene sequences would be patent-eligible subject matter after today’s argument.”

Written By: Heidi Ledford
continue to source article at blogs.nature.com

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    • In reply to #1 by Eyerish:

      It is sad that companies are o trying to own the very essence of being human to profit from it which will inevitably lead to medical and health haves and have nots.

      My concern too, but how can the money be found for R and D without some involvement by the private sector?

      An extremely delicate balance needs to be struck.

      S G

      • In reply to #5 by Stafford Gordon:

        In reply to #1 by Eyerish:

        It is sad that companies are o trying to own the very essence of being human to profit from it which will inevitably lead to medical and health haves and have nots.

        My concern too, but how can the money be found for R and D without some involvement by the private sector?…

        I’ve worked in a corporate R&D lab and I don’t really see the problem. There is a process in place that works really well actually. When you get government money all your research from that project is supposed to be in the public domain. You can negotiate around that on any given contract, for example you can say you are using some proprietary technology and certain things should remain secret. But you have to negotiate that before hand and most of the people who fund research (DARPA, NIST, NSF, etc.) are very reluctant to agree to things like that. Or at least they were on any computer science research I was involved with. You have to specify in your proposal that you will be using some proprietary technology and that gives an advantage to people proposing against you who aren’t.

        IMO none of this is a systemic problem with the way we do research. Its a problem that some of the people funding Biotech research in the US government are changing the rules and accomodating the biotech companies way too much. That and even worse the problem is that Congress has been passing IP laws that are ignorant of science and that skew things toward the corporations not the general public as it was in the past.

    • In reply to #1 by Eyerish:

      It is sad that companies are o trying to own the very essence of being human to profit from it which will inevitably lead to medical and health haves and have nots.

      I agree it would be nice if people who ran large corporations gave more thought to the general welfare but I think its totally unrealistic to ever expect that. I’ve been educating myself a bit lately on things like behavioral ecology, game theory, and theories of altruism and the fascinating thing to me is how relevant a lot of ideas are from biology to economics.

      The same argument that disproves group selection can be used to show that we shouldn’t expect CEOs to be overly concerned about the general public. Big corporations are in business to maximize profit. If there was a company (call it Stark Industries) whose CEO had a life changing event (e.g. say he was captured by terrorists who were using his own weapons) and suddenly diverted all the companies energy to doing good rather than maximizing profit that would be cool. But it would also create an opportunity for “cheaters” for other companies (e.g. Hammer Industries) that still DID decide to take every possible advantage. In the real world stock holders would flock from Stark to Hammer and in a fairly short period of time Stark would no longer be a major player and Hammer would take their place.

      The error is expecting corporations to be moral. That’s not what they are there for they are there to maximize profit. The morality, the controls, checks, and balances are supposed to come from the government. In a game theory sense there are many games where the rational thing to do is to cheat even though both sides could be better off together if they cooperated. The way you solve that is by having additional factors to even the payoffs. To punish cheaters and reward cooperators. In economics that is what governments are supposed to do with regard to corporations. The real problem is not greedy corporations but a US government that is in a large way abrogating its responsibility to its own people and to the world.

  1. This story makes me ashamed of my current quest to find the gene that makes me the most important person in the world and right when everyone else is wrong and and then market it. Though recently, from reading the papers and watching the news, I have concluded that it is already pretty widespread.

  2. Perhaps a new category of intellectual property similar to that of plant breeder rights should be introduced whereby the developer/inventor of genetic stuff is entitled to legal patent like protection for a limited numer of years only eg say 10 years. This is needed to encourage research in such areas and give time to recover the costs of the research otherwise it will not happen. The research is very desireable for humanity but will only be done seriously if there is some commercial value in it.

    • In reply to #3 by Richard01:

      This is needed to encourage research in such areas and give time to recover the costs of the research otherwise it will not happen. The research is very desireable for humanity but will only be done seriously if there is some commercial value in it.

      LOL. Are you serious? If there is some commercial value?? This stuff is a gold mine and after the oil industry and a few tech companies Biotech are some of the most profitable companies in existence and some of the fastest growing in history.

  3. Chief justices are well paid so they don’t have to take bribes from corporations. Why then do they so strongly favour the interests of corporations? Surely they can’t make ruling that would change the value of their profiles.

    • In reply to #9 by Roedy:

      Chief justices are well paid so they don’t have to take bribes from corporations. Why then do they so strongly favour the interests of corporations? Surely they can’t make ruling that would change the value of their profiles.

      Do you mean “portfolios” rather than profiles as in stock portfolios? Because if you do that is unfortunately not true. For all other judges in the US there are rigorous checks and balances so that a lawyer can challenge the impartiality of a judge and in most cases the judge will recuse themselves even if there is a possible appearance of conflict of interest and if they don’t recuse themselves there are appeals courts and review panels that can step in. But that isn’t the case for the supreme court. The US founders wanted that court to be completely removed from any possible interference. The idea was that it was supposed to be jurists so above reproach that they would have enough integrity to recuse themselves if there was a possible conflict but if they don’t there is nothing to make them.

      In the past this usually worked pretty well. There were a few exceptions but for the most part — regardless of politics — the people on the supreme court were very ethical jurists who would recuse themselves if they had the appearance of bias. There are even some examples ( a judge named Earl Warren) of judges who were very conservative in their public views but who ended up going with principle over ideology and made important rulings to guarantee due process that made the people who put them there furios.

      But as is happening in many ways with the US political system in recent years that is all changing. With people like Clarence Thomas and Scalia you have justices who don’t know (Thomas) or care (Scalia) about legal precedent and will always vote in favor of a corporation. There was a case a while back where Thomas’s wife had been actively campaigning on the issue before the court and had made six figure salaries from groups lobbying for one side of the issue. It was a clear conflict of interest but all people could do was try to shame Thomas which was pointless. He ruled and he ruled the way everyone knew he would in favor of the healthcare companies.

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