WASHINGTON – On Monday, the Supreme Court grapples with a big question whether a company can patent a human gene? The answer to this question can help U.S. medical research in fighting against diseases like breast and ovarian cancer. The risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer is three to seven times greater in women with two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2.
For almost 30 years, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office have been awarding patents on human genes.
Director of genome ethics, law & policy at Duke University, Robert Cook-Deegan said in a statement that “The intellectual framework that comes out of the decision could have a significant impact on other patents – for antibiotics, vaccines, hormones, stem cells and diagnostics on infectious microbes that are found in nature. This could affect agricultural biotechnology, environmental biotechnology, green-tech, the use of organisms to produce alternative fuels and other applications”.
$500 million has been invested by the Myriad Genetics in the patents. The company said that without the ability to recover that investment, breakthrough scientific discoveries required to fight with all kinds of medical diseases wouldn’t happen.
The president and CEO of Myriad Genetics, Peter D. Meldrum said in a statement that “Countless companies and investors have risked billions of dollars to research and develop scientific advances under the promise of strong patent protection”.
The opponents said that permitting companies such as Myriad to patent human genes will make the lifesaving medical research slow.
Executive director of Breast Cancer Action, Karuna Jagger said, “What that means is that no other researcher or doctor can develop an additional test, therapy or conduct research on these genes”.
The natural phenomena and laws of nature cannot be given a patent said the Supreme Court.
In March 2010, a New York district court agreed that genes cannot be patented, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has now twice ruled that genes can be patented.
President of Myriad Genetics Laboratories, Mark C. Capone said in an interview that “Myriad cannot, should not and has not patented genes as they exist in the human body on DNA. This case is truly about isolated DNA molecules which are synthetic chemicals created by the human ingenuity of man that have very important clinical utilities, which is why this was eligible for a patent”.
However, the ACLU is saying that isolating the DNA molecules does not stop them from being DNA molecules, which they say are not patentable.
The ACLU’s lawyer, Christopher A. Hansen said, “Under this theory, Hans Dehmelt, who won the Nobel Prize for being the first to isolate a single electron from an atom, could have patented the electron itself. A kidney removed from the body (or gold extracted from a stream) would be patentable subject matter”.
The Obama Justice Department seems to agree.
A lawyer with the law firm Paul Hastings, Bruce Wexler said, “The key issue now for the court will therefore be whether the scientist working in the lab to isolate a particular gene innovated in a way that allows for that isolated gene to be patented”.
The court will rule before the end of summer.
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