The Supreme Court has finally done what should have been done years ago -- declared that genes which naturally exist in all of us cannot be patented. For years Myriad Genetics, the company that sells the genetic tests used by Angelina Jolie and thousands of other women to assess their risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, has held back the development of better tests and access for many women to testing by invoking their patent claims on key genes. Now the Supreme Court has rightly said that kind of patent is not valid.
Patenting a naturally existing gene never made any sense. Sure, it takes work to figure out what genes do, but the rewards for that are publications, tenure, professional honors and even a Nobel Prize -- not a patent. Patents should be given not for discovery, but for inventions: What genes can you change; what test kit can you build; what program can you run to screen genetic risks?
The implications of the decision could be far broader than Myriad, whose stock price went up after the ruling. Many companies have taken out patents on genes not only those found in humans but in animals, microbes and plants. All of these are now in question -- which may cause some reevaluation of the worth of some companies who have been touting their ownership of genes to Wall Street.
NBC's Pete Williams shares details on the Supreme Court's unanimous decision that says human genes cannot be patented, but Synthetic DNA is patentable.
The decision will also give a bit of a push to the field of synthetic biology. In this area scientists try to change, tweak or create new genes -- usually in viruses or bacteria -- to make novel organisms that have valuable properties like making proteins for food or acting as vaccines against disease. The Supreme Court explicitly encouraged patents for this type of invention and it is likely to be where the action is in the field of genetics.
It took a very long time to get a sensible patent policy in place in the United States and other countries. The point of patents is to reward practical inventions and useful creations, not to let people profit from finding what naturally exists in the world. Now industry and lawyers will have to work to reset the rules since the days of the Oklahoma land rush laying claims to bits of human DNA have been called to a halt.
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is the head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.