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Can medical companies patent human genes? Supreme Court hears key case. (+video)

The US Supreme Court on Monday takes up a case with widespread implications for scientific innovation and health care in the US. The question: Are human genes patentable?

Supreme Court case to rule on gene patenting
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The US Supreme Court is scheduled on Monday to take up a case with widespread implications for scientific innovation and health care in the US. The question: Are human genes patentable?

The issue arises in a challenge to patents held by Myriad Genetics, a Utah-based diagnostic testing and research firm that developed a way to detect genetic mutations (called BRCA1 and BRCA2) that scientists associate with a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

The process is described by the company’s lawyers as akin to locating a particular grain of sand in a space the size of the Empire State Building. The tests have helped over a million patients identify risks and develop treatment strategies.

But the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation charge that Myriad Genetics is actually hindering scientific innovation and undercutting access to medical care for patients who need it.

They charge that the company is using its patents to prevent other researchers from developing new tests and that the company has prevented thousands of women from obtaining more accurate screening tests.

Kathleen Maxian is a patient undergoing treatment for Stage-4 ovarian cancer. Her doctors told her after surgery that she had a 20 percent chance of living for five years.

She said two years earlier her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, the sister went to Myriad to determine whether the disease might be genetically-based. The results suggested it was not.

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