How a Supreme Court case on human genes could impact you
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case disputing whether human genes can be patented, but the conversation often centered on much simpler topics, such as baseball bats and chocolate chip cookies.
The Justices resorted to using a metaphor to attempt to understand the complex issues at play in a discussion about advanced biochemistry.
“I can bake a chocolate chip cookie using natural ingredients – salt, flour, eggs, butter – and I create my chocolate chip cookie. And if I combust those in some new way, I can get a patent on that,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “But I can’t imagine getting a patent simply on the basic items of salt, flour and eggs, simply because I’ve created a new use or a new product from those ingredients.
Breaking down this argument
The case, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., questions a decision to award a patent to Myriad Genetics, a biotechnology company focused on human genomics, for isolating human genes that indicate a genetic disposition to breast and ovarian cancer.
So what does this mean?
The Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether or not it is right for the government to restrict research on human genes? On the other hand, what incentive do companies like Myriad Genetics have to research human genes if they cannot profit?
A tough decision but if the patent is validated as constitutional, doctors and patients would have to use the diagnostic test that Myriad has developed. And other companies and researchers would continue to be restricted from research in this area.
“Many patients seek genetic testing to see if they have mutations in their genes that are associated with a significantly increased risk of breast or ovarian cancer,” states the Supreme Court brief. “These patents claim every naturally-occurring version of those genes, including mutations, on the theory that Myriad invented something patent-eligible simply by removing (“isolating”) the genes from the body.”
The challengers are primarily medical professionals who are represented by Christopher A. Hansen of the American Civil Liberties Union. They use genetic testing methods on a routine basis. But because of Myriad’s patent, this group is currently barred from testing the human genes that Myriad claims to own.
“The patents on the genes in this case cover the genes of every man, woman, and child in the United States,” he argued. “And as I just said…the government has given Myriad the authority to stop research on every one of our genes. That simply can’t be right.”
What’s at stake?
The two genes in question are BRCA1 and BRCA2. In normal cells, these genes are beneficial to the stability of the cell’s genetic material, but mutation of the genes has been linked to the development of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
According to The National Cancer Institute, “a woman who has inherited a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 is about five times more likely to develop breast cancer than a woman who does not have such a mutation.”
The justices expressed concern over what motivation companies would have to continue conducting genetic research if they aren’t able to receive a patent for their work.
“What does Myriad get out of this deal?” asked Justice Elena Kagan. “Why shouldn’t we worry that Myriad or companies like it will just say, ‘Well, you know, we’re not going to do this work anymore’?”
It’s a big decision that could have a major impact on medical research. The Court is expected to rule on the case before the end of the summer.
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