23 April, 2013

Can human genes be patented? The US Supreme Court starts its deliberation

Patents relating to medicine or medical treatments often don't come without controversy. Should we allow the patenting of essential medicines or treatments, which if provided cheap enough could save countless lives, or ease the suffering of many? What about the monetary interests of parties who've sunk millions into research and development, should we prevent them from recouping that investment? One of the more interesting, and possibly more important decisions in patents was put forth to the US Supreme Court on the 15th of April, when oral arguments for the case were heard.

Not the genes you were thinking of
The case of Association of Molecular Pathology v Myriad Genetics put forward the question of whether human genes could be patented, more specifically, genes relating to the increased risk of both ovarian and breast cancer in women in mutated. Myriad Genetics sought to patent the genes after their discovery, which was subsequently contested. 

This presents an incredible dilemma where monetary interests clash with what is intrinsically a part of you; your own genes. Should the investment of billions of dollars go to waste, or should companies be allowed to patent something which is present in humans without any outside interference? Also would the patentability of genes hinder future cures or therapies related to those genes to prevent ovarian or breast cancer? At the end of the day the act of balancing interests is a tough one. If billions of dollars spent on research and development can be made useless due to gene patents being unpatentable, companies will have less incentive to go about this research, or might even cause serious financial harm to them. On the other side is companies having monopoly rights to something arguably occurring naturally; your genes. Should any legal entity have the exclusive rights to parts of the human genome? There are two ways of looking at this question: as a lawyer, I can say it is very possible that companies could patent genes, but as a human being, I’d want that type of information to be accessible to anyone, not under the supervision of a company.

Experts have stated that such patents have "...faded in importance" and that the law suit "...will be much more ideological than it will be practical". This is probably because there is very little use for an isolated gene or its analysis. The average consumer will never need the genes in question analyzed, and the few researchers that will use them probably will come few and far between. In addition the patents in question will expire in a few years, effectively rendering the nullification of the patents through litigation nothing but a matter of principle for the Association of Molecular Pathology. Precedent will surely prevent the future patenting of human genes, should the Supreme Court decide so, but the real monetary interests of companies lie in medicines, not genetics.

What the court has to decide is whether an isolated gene would be patentable as an isolated item, being sufficiently different from the genes found in your individual cells, or that they are purely a product of nature. The New York Times indicated that a fifth of the 20,000 genes found in the human body are patented, clearly showing that this has been an accepted practice for a while in the US. The US Government presented the courts with a statement expressing their opinion that human genes should not be patentable, showing support for the idea that they are indeed a natural occurrence, or the very least a subject matter that should not be covered under patents.

Indeed this case will present the Justices an interesting subject matter to tackle, and I for one will be waiting for their judgment with excitement. What seems to be the more probable outcome is the allowance of the patents, as decisions in both the UK and Australia (subject to further appeal) have been decided to favor the patenting of genes. What the US Supreme Court decides will undoubtedly influence later decisions in other jurisdictions, giving the case still the clout it deserves. 

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