Can human genes be patented? A court decision could make that decision. (photo/MIT research lab)
By Robert Bradley
An answer to the question whether human genetic material can be patented is likely to come sometime in May or June when the Supreme Court makes a decision in the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. case. Myriad Genetics in the mid-1990s obtained multiple patents on two human genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, which were given these labels due to their linkage to breast cancer. Myriad Genetics successfully staked its patent claims on an ability to remove the two genes from the human body, and then subject them to further study.
The granting of the patents was subject almost immediately to lawsuits filed by a number of genetic scientists, research groups, and professional genetic associations. It has taken a number of years for the lawsuits to go through multiple federal court proceedings, and eventually wind up on the Supreme Court’s docket for this term.
The patenting of human genetic materials raises a number of serious economic, ethical, legal, and medical concerns. These can range from a broad question of what the implications of patenting parts of the human body mean for the future of the human race to more specific concerns about whether future business applications should be a stage in the scientific process. Should the potential size of a profit control the dissemination of the results of scientific research on human diseases? Should the release of a genetically-based cure for a deadly form of cancer be delayed until a patent is obtained?
Myriad essentially defended its patents by claiming that no one has been harmed specifically by the grant of the patents, and that the decision of the U.S. Patent Office should be given due weight by the courts, which don’t possess the level of expertise of the office on scientific matters.
Opponents to the patents contend that Myriad did nothing to the genes that would deserve a patent. The removal of specific genes from the human body has been a typical procedure done by many in the field, and the genes were not manipulated in a fashion that made them different than their naturally-occurring state. Further since Myriad now holds exclusive patents on the genes, this means the company can stop anyone else from doing research or testing on the genes, which will impede scientific research on breast cancer.
So while the upcoming Court decisions on gay marriage and voting rights have generated far greater media attention, the Court’s ruling on this case dealing with patents may have much greater consequences for the human condition.
Bob Bradley is solely responsible for the opinions expressed above. These opinions do not necessarily reflect those of WJBC, Radio Bloomington or Cumulus Media staff or management.
Bradley was a full-time professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University where he has been since 1982. He has received several recognitions including: Carnegie Scholar for Civic Engagement, Constitution Trail Friend of the Year, and Faculty Star distinction by ISU Athletics. He dearly loves his wife, Reenie, of more than 25 years, and his daughter, Erin. He is an avid reader, devout sports enthusiast, gardener, golfer, and bird watcher.