The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously threw out attempts to patent human genes, siding with advocates who say the multibillion-dollar biotechnology industry should not have exclusive control over genetic information found inside the human body.
But the high court also approved for the first time the patenting of synthetic DNA, handing a victory to researchers and companies looking to come up with ways to fight — and profit from — medical breakthroughs that could reverse life-threatening diseases such as breast or ovarian cancer.
The decision “sets a fair and level playing field for open and responsible use of genetic information,” said Dr. Robert B. Darnell, president and scientific director of the New York Genome Center. “At the same time, it does not preclude the opportunity for innovation in the genetic world, and should be seen as an important clarifying moment for research and the health-care industry.”
The high court’s judgment, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, reverses three decades of patent awards by government officials and throws out patents held by Salt Lake City-based Myriad Genetics Inc. involving a breast- cancer test brought into the public eye recently by actress Angelina Jolie’s revelation that she had a double mastectomy.
Jolie said she carries a defective BRCA1 gene that puts her at high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers, and her doctor said the test that turned up the faulty gene link led Jolie to have both of her healthy breasts removed. Jolie’s mother died of ovarian cancer, and her maternal grandmother also had the disease.
The high court’s ruling immediately prompted one of Myriad’s competitors to announce it would offer the same test at a far lower price.
Justice Thomas, who wrote the court’s decision, said Myriad’s assertion — that the DNA it isolated from the body for its proprietary breast and ovarian cancer tests were patentable — had to be dismissed because it violates patent rules. The court has said that laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas are not patentable.
“We hold that a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated,” Justice Thomas said.
However, the court gave Myriad a partial victory, ruling that while naturally occurring DNA was not patentable, synthetically created DNA, known as cDNA, can be patented “because it is not naturally occurring,” as Justice Thomas wrote.