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Science in Mind

Geneticist critiques DNA patent argument

Eric Lander, a leader in the human genome project, a scientific adviser to President Obama, and head of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, filed an amicus brief in the breast cancer gene patent case now before the Supreme Court. He argues that the biotech company Myriad has patented products of nature.

Eric Lander, a leader in the human genome project, a scientific adviser to President Obama, and head of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, filed an amicus brief in the breast cancer gene patent case now before the Supreme Court. He argues that the biotech company Myriad has patented products of nature.

Late last year, the nation’s highest court said it would consider a legal challenge to patents that biotechnology company Myriad Genetics holds on genes linked to risk of breast cancer. Now, Eric Lander — a leader in the human genome project, a scientific adviser to President Obama, and the head of the Broad Institute in Cambridge — has weighed in.

In an amicus brief carefully described as Lander’s personal view, he argues that Utah-based Myriad has patented products of nature, which are ineligible for such protection.

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Although the brief is filed “in support of neither party,” it is a strong critique of the reasoning that has been used to protect the gene patents that Myriad holds. In his brief, Lander proposes a thought experiment, asking the court to consider what would have occurred if such restrictive patents had been taken on HIV.

“Scientists would not have been able to rapidly learn the secrets of this insidious virus; drug developers would not have been able to develop life-saving drugs; technologists would not have been able to develop effective diagnostics; and patients would not have been able to know their HIV status,” Lander wrote.

To build his argument, Lander gets back to basic biology. The federal Circuit Court, which ruled in favor of Myriad’s patents, had reasoned that isolated DNA fragments of the human genome patented by Myriad were not products of nature.

Lander, however, notes that for three decades, scientists have known that isolated DNA fragments occur naturally.

He goes on to argue that understanding the genome, such as the risks conferred by a gene, is not an invention, “but rather is more akin to discovery of a law of Nature.”

The Myriad case is due to be heard before the Supreme Court in April. The biotechnology industry argues that if the patents aren’t upheld, such a decision could erode much of the foundation for a wide array of businesses that range from pharmaceutical companies to agricultural companies.

Scientific organizations and patient groups have argued that the patents impede research, and even patients’ ability to know their own risks.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

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