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Supreme Court discusses prospect of patenting genes

by JASMINE ELSHAMY Photo & Video Editor

The ability of scientists, doctors and companies to tell us how our genes might impact our health now hinges on a case being debated by the U.S. Supreme Court, the infamously drawn-out Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics case.

The case dates back to a 2009 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and centers on the question of whether genes — those snippets of DNA that encode the proteins inside cells — can be patented.

The ACLU, the scientists, the advocacy organizations and the patients it represents say no because a gene is something that exists in nature, just like a branch, soil, or a molecule of hydrogen. Myriad Genetics told the Court its inventors had created a new, never-before-seen molecule.

Myriad claimed it has spent several years and hundreds of millions of dollars in its research. Myriad owns the patent on breast cancer genes, and it is the only company that can perform tests for potential abnormalities. They perform two tests and invest a lot in their research.

Some of the justices are not seeming to buy Myriad’s argument, giving some hope to genomics and personalized medicine communities that when the Court finally decides the case, they would have a reason to celebrate. The case will probably be decided sometime around late June.

“I’m just not understanding the need to patent genes. They are naturally formed, a natural part of the human body. I don’t see the need to claim some kind of ownership on them,” says freshman Toni Rothchild.

Many people agree with Rothchild’s point of view more than anything, but there are arguments and reasoning refuting them and supporting the need for the patents in the medical field.

“What we’re arguing about is really the future of medicine and either accelerating it or slowing it down,” says CEO of SV Bio and founder of Navigenics Dietrich Stephan. “[Gene patenting] turned into this quagmire that was holding the field back. We need to be able to instantaneously deliver that information to [patients] and their doctors and not go through all these crazy hoops of paying the license holder.”

Experts say that the real value and potential for innovation comes after genes or gene mutations are identified, and that genetic insight is then applied to a new process. In most cases, those new processes would still be patentable, but not the underlying genetic code.

Diagnostic and therapeutic companies would compete on the quality and price of their tests instead of having a monopoly on the entire pipeline, as Myriad does now with its patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2, two genes associated with early-onset breast and ovarian cancers.

Women who want to be tested for these genes have to take Myriad’s test, which can cost thousands upon thousands of dollars.

“I can see the benefit of having these genes patented because the earlier someone can find out that they have cancer, the earlier it can be treated. The prospect of that happening in the near future is wonderful and something that I would definitely support,” says sophomore Lauren Gaskel. “It just seems really expensive considering you would only be testing to see if you have the cancer, but it would be worth it to know your body is safe.”

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