In what could end up influencing the very course of human health over the long term, the Supreme Court has just ruled that companies cannot patent naturally occurring human genes. The ruling was made in relation to Myriad Genetics, a biotechnology company known worldwide for its proprietary breast and ovarian cancer tests based on genes it has isolated in the human body.
Commenting on the ruling in an interview with Reuters, a spokesperson for the ACLU Women's Rights Project said, "Myriad did not invent the BRCA genes and should not control them. Because of this ruling, patients will have greater access to genetic testing and scientists can engage in research on these genes without fear of being sued."
However, the key phrase in the court ruling is "naturally occurring" genes. The wording of the Supreme Court decision lays out the details, stating, "we hold that a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but that cDNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring."
cDNA (complementary DNA) is the term used when referring to synthetic genetic material created in the lab. So while the process of patenting human genes that has gone on for decades will now likely come to an end in the U.S., the viability of protecting cDNA innovations with patents has been firmly backed up.
It's difficult to predict how this will impact the future of human health, but in the short-term, it could lead to a disruption of the industry as the practice of gene therapy is no longer hindered by naturally occurring gene patents held by large pharmaceutical companies.