No More Patents On DNA?

This is an issue I have worked on for over 15 years: No Patents On Life.

I'll keep this brief, suddenly the U.S. is reversing a totally unreasonable position that meant that DNA was something you could patent. It was based on a rather strange decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, and never really debated in Congress or in any democratic way. Now, it seems this will be reversed:

New York Times: U.S. Says Genes Should Not Be Eligible for Patents

Reversing a longstanding policy, the federal government said on Friday that human and other genes should not be eligible for patents because they are part of nature. The new position could have a huge impact on medicine and on the biotechnology industry.

“The chemical structure of native human genes is a product of nature, and it is no less a product of nature when that structure is ‘isolated’ from its natural environment than are cotton fibers that have been separated from cotton seeds or coal that has been extracted from the earth,” the brief said.

However, the government suggested such a change would have limited impact on the biotechnology industry because man-made manipulations of DNA, like methods to create genetically modified crops or gene therapies, could still be patented. Dr. James P. Evans, a professor of genetics and medicine at the University of North Carolina, who headed a government advisory task force on gene patents, called the government’s brief “a bit of a landmark, kind of a line in the sand.”

He said that although gene patents had been issued for decades, the patentability of genes had never been examined in court.

That changed when the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation organized various individuals, medical researchers and societies to file a lawsuit challenging patents held by Myriad Genetics and the University of Utah Research Foundation. The patents cover two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, and the over $3,000 analysis Myriad performs on the genes to see if women carry mutations that predispose them to breast and ovarian cancers.

In a surprise ruling in March, Judge Robert W. Sweet of the United States District Court in Manhattan ruled the patents invalid. He said that genes were important for the information they convey, and in that sense, an isolated gene was not really different from a gene in the body. The government said that that ruling prompted it to re-evaluate its policy.

When I worked in Sweden, researchers at Lund University told me how they had to send data from Swedish cancer patients to the U.S., if they wanted to screen for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, and that such data could be used in any way the American researchers wanted. It meant that Swedish DNA data could become useful for researchers elsewhere, who could patent DNA from subjects in Sweden.

Without patents, Monsanto and other biotech companies would never have been able to create monopolies on food seeds like soy, corn and canola.


Pandabonium said…
Dang! You me my patent application for the entire planet Earth might be rejected?

What a bizarre heritage of law - let's hope it gets sorted out soon.

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