Judge To Big Pharma: You Can't Patent GenesS

In a blow struck for consumers and scientists against the pharmaceutical industry, a New York judge ruled yesterday that a company could not patent a human gene just because they discovered it. The ruling could revolutionize the biotech industry.

The ruling grew out of a suit brought by the ACLU and Public Patent Foundation against Myriad Genetics, Inc., which had a patent on a gene which can lead to breast cancer. Refusing to license the gene to other companies, Myriad had a monopoly on tests for the gene, which meant many women were denied the ability to discover whether they had an increased risk for cancer.

According to the AP:

[Judge Robert] Sweet said he invalidated the patents because DNA's existence in an isolated form does not alter the fundamental quality of DNA as it exists in the body nor the information it encodes.

He rejected arguments that it was acceptable to grant patents on DNA sequences as long as they are claimed in the form of "isolated DNA."

"Many, however, including scientists in the fields of molecular biology and genomics, have considered this practice a `lawyer's trick' that circumvents the prohibitions on the direct patenting of the DNA in our bodies but which, in practice, reaches the same result," he said.

The judge said his findings were consistent with Supreme Court rulings that have established that purifying a product of nature does not mean it can be patented.

The ruling that could invalidate patents held on almost 20 percent of the human genome. There is a long-simmering debate within the biotech and scientific communities over whether it makes sense to patent genes. At this point, most scientists agree that patents on genes retard scientific innovation. When companies request a huge fee for somebody to develop medicines related to genes they own, it can cause real harm to people and researchers who can't afford the pharmaceutical companies' asking prices.

The AP continues:

Mary-Claire King, the University of Washington scientist who discovered the first breast cancer predisposition gene, BRCA-1, while at the University of California at Berkeley in 1990, called the ruling "very good news for women who are potential carriers" of cancer genes and their families.

"It will open the door to truly competitive testing. It will allow the science to drive the field instead of the monopolistic approach that has dominated," she said.

Patenting a gene "makes no sense," King said. "It's like patenting one's thumb."

via Associated Press