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Friday FTW: U.S. Supreme Court says no to patenting human genes

Espe Currie

In a stunning display of common sense over corporate interest, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 13 that human genes can’t be patented.

The case centred on controversial Myriad Genetics, the (now former) patent-holder of the gene mutation responsible for hereditary breast cancer. Perhaps, like many others, you first heard about the gene mutation after Angelina Jolie spoke openly about her preventative double mastectomy last month—launching the subject into hot topic territory. Jolie had the surgery after tests revealed she carried the gene mutation which gave her an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer.

In that New York Times op-ed, Jolie encouraged other women to be tested for the gene. However, the property rights to the patented gene mutation push the cost of the test over $3,000—even for those likely to test positive, such as women with mothers and grandmothers who’ve had breast cancer. Jolie’s double mastectomy, though seemingly extreme, was a preventative cancer treatment. But with the cost of the test so high, even the option to consider this preventative care was available only to those with the money to spare.

The case was, of course, more complicated than the coverage of celebrity health, though Jolie did bring hereditary breast cancer and this particular gene mutation into the limelight. The biotech industry is up in arms about the Supreme Court’s ruling, afraid the decision will reduce funding for research—gene patents lead to bigger payoffs when treatments hit the market, an attractive prospect for investors.

But many, including civil rights activists, say it’s a win, as the decision opens the field to independent research and study, particularly at universities.

The judges voted unanimously on the issue, and reportedly in line with President Obama’s opinions on the topic. But the decision did not outlaw synthetic gene patenting; companies are still allowed to patent cDNA, the synthetic DNA produced by cloning.

So, here’s hoping healthcare becomes more affordable in the U.S., preventative cancer treatments become more accessible, and clones don’t take over the world.


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