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Supreme Court rules that human genes cannot be patented (+video)

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Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas compared Myriad’s discovery with a similar case before the Supreme Court in 1980. In that case, a scientist had found a way to induce bacteria to consume and break down crude oil through a natural process. (This was seen as an important advance, given the danger of massive oil spills.) Justice Thomas said the resulting oil-eating bacterium was new with markedly different characteristics from any found in nature.

“In this case, by contrast, Myriad did not create anything,” Thomas said. “To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention.”

Myriad uncovered the precise location and genetic sequence of the mutations that researchers associate with a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancers. But that alone did not create anything new or invent any new thing, Thomas said.

Myriad applied for and received patents protecting its discovery. The company used the patents to force other researches to stop certain lines of scientific inquiry. The company also used its patents to prevent others from developing cheaper, more efficient ways to screen women for the identified genetic mutations.

A group of researchers and medical patients filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of Myriad’s patents. On Thursday, they claimed victory.

“Today, the court struck down a major barrier to patient care and medical innovation,” said Sandra Park, a lawyer with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “Myriad did not invent the [mutated] 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 [by Myriad],” Ms. Park said.

One of the plaintiffs in the case was Harry Ostrer, a genetic researcher and professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York. He predicted the decision would expand access to genetic testing and reduce the cost of such testing.

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