Supreme Court rules human genes may not be patented

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The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that human genes cannot be patented, a decision that could shape the future of medical and genetic research and have profound effects on pharmaceuticals and agriculture.


The ruling was a split decision for Myriad Genetics Inc., which holds patents on genes that have been linked to breast and ovarian cancer.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court, said that merely isolating those specific genes — called BRCA1 and BRCA2 — was not worthy of a patent.

“Myriad found the location of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but that discovery, by itself, does not render the BRCA genes . . . patent eligible,” Thomas wrote.

On the other hand, Thomas wrote, Myriad’s creation of a synthetic form of DNA — called cDNA — based on its discovery does deserve patent protection.

“The lab technician creates something new when cDNA is made,” Thomas wrote.

Written By: Robert Barnes
continue to source article at washingtonpost.com

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  1. Just finished reading about the hunt for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and Skolnick(sp?), one of the founders of Myriad, made good arguments for his biotech companies patent claims, but there were good counter arguments also. But this was a 1996 perspective and much has certainly changed since then. Especially the thing on gene patenting.

    Personally, I am torn here. as patents can be an incentive for the big money to get involved, but then one wonders should the big money be involved.

    • In reply to #1 by Neodarwinian:

      Personally, I am torn here. as patents can be an incentive for the big money to get involved, but then one wonders should the big money be involved.

      There is plenty of incentive in this industry, don’t worry about that. I don’t know the details on bio patents but I know that patents as applied to software are a travesty. They are trying to apply laws designed for a mechanical era to Information Technology. There are patents out there for software that make no sense at all, just taking algorithms that have been around for decades and are described in detail in text books for example and patenting them. My guess is that in biotech its similar or worse, what was designed to stimulate innovation is being used for the opposite purpose by a few big corporations. This is a great decision for once.

      But the most amazing thing about this news is that Clarence Thomas actually wrote something. People were beginning to wonder if he could, his usual participation is to just nod approval whenever Scalia says anything.

  2. A very wise decision, not only because no-one who applies for a patent has actually ‘invented’ them, lol – but because most ‘single gene’ studies turn out to be nonsense. No-one can own the rights to a sequence of chromosomal template – it is absurd.

  3. I’m worried about their ruling in regards to cDNA – if people aren’t allowed to make cDNA libraries due to patents, then this ruling might be useless and nobody will be able to hunt for genes other than the patent holders. Hopefully there will be some clarification about that.

    • In reply to #3 by Kim Probable:

      I’m worried about their ruling in regards to cDNA – if people aren’t allowed to make cDNA libraries due to patents, then this ruling might be useless and nobody will be able to hunt for genes other than the patent holders. Hopefully there will be some clarification about that.

      is there a good intro article you would recommend on cDNA? Never heard of it and it sounds interesting. Not a lot of detail, for someone who knows as much biology as is in The Selfish Gene.

      • In reply to #5 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #3 by Kim Probable:

        I’m worried about their ruling in regards to cDNA – if people aren’t allowed to make cDNA libraries due to patents, then this ruling might be useless and nobody will be able to hunt for genes other than the patent holders. Hopefully there will be some clarification a…

        http://www.bio.davidson.edu/COurses/genomics/method/cDNAproduction.html

        Not too bad an article on complimentary DNA and it’s cloning uses.

      • In reply to #5 by Red Dog:

        is there a good intro article you would recommend on cDNA?

        Neodarwinian’s link is probably the simplest explanation I’ve seen.

        I can give you a short explanation, too. Messenger RNA (mRNA) is produced from DNA and basically sends a message out that a certain protein needs to be made. For example, in the research I’m working on, we’re looking at how much mRNA (of a certain sequence) a fruit fly produces when infection occurs and from that, we can sort of get an idea of how well the body is responding to infection. If there isn’t an infection, the body is going to produce very low levels of this specific mRNA sequence. If there is an infection, the body is going to go into high gear to defend itself, and a lot of this mRNA will be produced.

        The problem is that the machine we have only measures levels of DNA, and you really need a lot of it made in order to have the machine “see” it. The neat thing is that we can make DNA from RNA.

        So what we do is make complimentary DNA, or cDNA, once we isolate the mRNA we want to study. This cDNA is named that because it compliments the mRNA strand that’s of interest to us. So, for example, where the mRNA has a C (cytosine), the DNA will have a G (guanine) and vice-versa. From this cDNA, we can make double stranded DNA, like what we see in our bodies, except we’ll only have the short sequence we’re most interested in, based on the mRNA that was produced. We can just replicate that DNA over and over until we have a lot of it, measure it and then know how much of the mRNA was being expressed.

  4. The question is : How seriously does this judgement interfere with such esoteric science?
    Genetic investigation will probably be the key to advancing medicine!
    The interference by religious poltroons in stem cell research made me want to throw up!

  5. This is the best news I have heard all month. I figured the Roberts court would rule the other way since they usually rule in favour of corporate interests — most famously giving them the right to bribe politicians with unlimited money in the form of advertising.

    The ruling make sense. There is no innovation or discovery involved. Patenting genes or DNA sequences is more like a land rush, laying claim to discoveries other people made previously. There is still plenty of room for patents on procedures and drugs that target specific genes.

    What they were really trying to do is lock out all research on a particular part of the body. It is as wrong headed as patenting the knee.

  6. Some years ago a friend of mine wrote a spreadsheet in Forth, called VP Planner. Lotus sued claiming it was a pirated ripoff. The judge ruled it had to be identical to Lotus and hence a theft, because it could import Lotus spreadsheets. The judge had never used a computer is his life. He had no clue what a computer program was, but it was his ignorance that decided the lawsuit.

    We have a similar problem with supreme court judges who probably never even taken high school biology deciding matters on GMOs, genes etc. when they don’t even know what DNA is. I think you need specialist judges, who at least have a BSc in the field they are ruling on and who see part of their job as simply keeping up to date broadly in the field.

    • In reply to #13 by Stevehill:

      Should Captain Cook have been allowed to patent Australia?

      He bloody well claimed it anyway. But yes I’m with you ridiculous to think you can patent something you discovered. The technology you used to discover it yes, but the genes themselves?

  7. Forgive my ignorance as this is the first I’ve heard of cDNA, but judging from Kim Probable’s explanation of it, is the patenting of cDNA really a good decison?
    If the only way to analyse the RNA in this context is by generating a complimentary strand, then surely the only way other scientists can do similar research is by inventing an entirely new way to analyse RNA? Or pay royalties.
    Is this really the way we want science to progress? You can only do research if you can invent a new way to do that research? How do you compare your findings to those of another company? How can you validate any scientific discoveries?

    What if Galileo had patented the telescope? Would we have made the same astronomical discoveries we did? Wouldn’t Galileo’s descendants, in a Conan-Doyle-esque way, be billionaries with the astronomical community under their thumb?

    • In reply to #15 by Seraphor:

      What if Galileo had patented the telescope? Would we have made the same astronomical discoveries we did? Wouldn’t Galileo’s descendants, in a Conan-Doyle-esque way, be billionaries with the astronomical community under their thumb?

      I don’t understand enough about cDNA to comment on that either way (thanks to those who left links and explanations btw) but since I mentioned how against software patents I am I want to make it clear I’m not against all patents and the telescope definitely was something that I think had patent laws been around at the time would have and should have been patented.

      And if it had been patented Galileo’s relatives would not still be getting rich from it. For one thing, it wasn’t even Galileo who invented it, he made some refinements to it but I’m pretty sure someone else invented it. It was kind of a logical invention for Kings who want to get a good look at invading (or defending) armies. Galileo’s real innovation was just using it to look up rather than on Earth and realizing that data could be relevant. At the time people still mostly followed the Greek model for natural philosophy and believed you worked by deduction not by doing experiments and testing hypotheses.

      But regardless the real point is that with there is an expiration date for patents and any patent for a telescope would have expired a long time ago. And something like a telescope is exactly the kind of technology that should be patented. It was a major invention and I think its totally reasonable that whoever thought it up would make money off of it. What I’m against are trying to patent things like software algorithms and patterns which all good software engineers know and use in all kinds of different software. There are rules for patents that exclude things already documented in text books but the problem is (as others have pointed out) that most of the lawmakers and judges are totally clueless about science in general and software in particular.

  8. How is it conceivable that a product of nature can be patented?

    A synthetic version, yes, of course, that’s nature harnessed; but otherwise, I suspect pure greed to be the motive.

    Can someone enlighten me please; apart from the speed of light in a vacuum, what does small “c” stand for?

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