Nature gets the credit: Supreme Court says human genes can't be patented

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It isn't every day that the U.S. Supreme Court issues a unanimous decision. Last week, the high court was united in its judgment that human genes can't be patented. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the decision that went against the financial interests of a major biotech company.

The court ruling was a major setback for Myriad Genetics, a Utah-based company which claimed that its patent on BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes should be respected. These genes, when isolated, can be tested for mutations that indicate an increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers. Myriad wanted to maintain its patent and its exclusive right to perform the tests for these mutations.

Scientists and researchers in the biotech community have long argued that issuing patents for naturally occurring processes was not only contrary to common sense, but imposed a high cost on biotechnical research. Opportunistic companies raced to patent thousands of genes the way Myriad had in the hope of stumbling upon a similar lucrative monopoly.

"Myriad did not create anything," Justice Thomas wrote. "To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention."

Researchers say that the cost of BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing could fall as much as 75 percent now that Myriad's patent has been invalidated. This is great news for the 250,000 patients who rely on these tests annually.

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