In its unanimous ruling Thursday that human genes cannot be patented, the US Supreme Court removed a worrisome source of uncertainty hanging over the biotechnology industry. Myriad Genetics, a Utah-based biotech firm, discovered and isolated BRCA1 and BRCA2, two genes that are highly associated with breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad went on to patent that discovery, but other researchers objected. The high court invalidated that patent on the grounds the company “did not create anything.” The landmark ruling frees up endless amounts of genetic material for the free use of science. It sets a significant precedent that will ultimately benefit researchers, business, consumers, and, most importantly, patients.
Legally, this was not a difficult case for the justices. Supreme Court case law had long held that patents can protect products of human ingenuity but not a product or law of nature. Human genes are clearly natural phenomena. Myriad had argued that it wasn’t patenting nature, but instead the process of isolating those genes from the body. But the American Medical Association, in a brief submitted to the court, effectively countered that that was like saying the first surgeon to remove a kidney should be able to get a patent on all “isolated” kidneys going forward.