October 17th, 2014
In a unanimous decision Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that genes that occur naturally cannot be patented by any person or institution. It also decided that genes that are synthetic (or chemically tweaked) can be.
This decision, made against the biotech company Myriad Genetics, which had patented the breast cancer gene BRCA, should drastically lower the cost of genetic testing for the gene (or any other natural gene). It also will probably change how willing drug development companies are to spend money and time develop drugs that are based on an isolated gene.
Myriad had developed a test that could determine if a woman had a mutated form of the BRCA gene. Mutated forms of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes can increase a woman’s chance of breast cancer by 80 percent (however, most women with breast cancer do not have a mutated BRCA gene). Since Myriad owned the rights to use the gene, they also had exclusive rights to the genetic test. And they charged somewhat accordingly; a test cost about $3,000, putting it out of reach of a large number of women. Famously, actress Angelina Jolie recently paid for the test, and upon finding that she had a mutation in a BRCA gene, opted for a radical bilateral mastectomy.
Not many diagnostic companies have patented a single gene for their testing, and single-gene therapy has not been a promising area for developing therapies. Another area that the Supreme Court allowed patent protection on, that of synthetic cDNA (complementary), is actually used more by the biotechnology industry. However, since the ruling became public, some scientists have argued that cDNA is also natural in origin, since it’s only the DNA that codes for genes.
Source: US Supreme Court, New York Times
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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