Can you patent genes? That very question was before the Supreme Court not too long ago, and now the highest court in the land has made its decision.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court today ruled that human genes can not be patented. Of course, it's a little more complicated than that. The general gist, however, is that companies can no longer claim they have a patent on a human gene just because they discovered or extracted it.
So, where do things get complicated? Well, the Supreme Court, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing the majority opinion, says that naturally occurring genes can not be patented. On the other hand, synthetic genes, or cDNA, can be patented as they're created by humans in a laboratory. The Supreme Court also ruled that the processes used when extracting genes can be patented.
Beyond the relief that comes from knowing a corporation can't own nature, there's also some good news in there for people seeking genetic tests. As TechDirt points out, the Supreme Court case revolved around Myriad Genetics and the patents it held on BRCA1 and BRCA2 - two genes that help identify if a person is going to contract breast or ovarian cancer later in life. Myriad Genetics used the patents on these genes to hold an exclusive monopoly on genetic testing that ensured only they could dictate the price and availability of testing.
If this all sounds familiar to you, that means you probably read Angelia Jolie's op-ed in The New York Times about her mastectomy. She had the money to undergo testing for BRCA1, but pointed out that many other women can not afford the $3,000 test to see if they had the faulty gene. The Supreme Court ruling should help decrease the cost of BRCA1 testing thus ensuring more women can be tested for the faulty gene.[h/t: ACLU]