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A closer look at Supreme Court's decision on gene patenting

A closer look at Supreme Court's decision on gene patenting

As previously discussed here and elsewhere, the Supreme Court today issued its opinion in the gene patenting case Association for Molecular Pathology vs. Myriad Genetics, Inc. In a unanimous decision (.pdf) authored by Justice Thomas, the Court declared that isolated genomic DNA was not eligible for patent protection, but that cDNA – “cloned” or “complementary DNA” – could be patented. This was largely the outcome some predicted after oral argument. And while the actual business and research effects of the decision remain to be seen, this does bring to a close the longstanding practice of patenting isolated portions of the human genome in its native state.

This likely brings to a close Myriad Genetics’ saga of aggressively enforcing its patents directed to BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing

The Court’s decision was relatively simple. It began with a largely accurate, and lengthy, recitation of the molecular biology behind transcription and translation. This factored significantly into the Court’s discussion of the differences between isolated genomic DNA and cDNA, particularly the absence of introns from cDNA molecules. It then assessed the patents’ claims at issue, which were generally directed to “an isolated DNA” of varying lengths and sequences. The opinion noted that, “Myriad’s patents would, if valid, give it the exclusive right to isolate an individual’s BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes… by breaking the covalent bonds that connect the DNA to the rest of the individual’s genome.” And the Court concluded its opinion by declaring that claims directed to molecules of isolated genomic DNA, themselves, were unpatentable “products of nature” because Myriad did not “alter any of the genetic information encoded in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes,” nor did the isolated genomic DNA possess “markedly different characteristics from any found in nature.”

The Court rejected Myriad’s claim that it created a new chemical entity because, in isolating the genes from their surrounding chromosomes, Myriad necessarily cleaved the chemical bonds of the chromosomes’ phosphate backbones. This was irrelevant because “Myriad’s claims are simply not expressed in terms of chemical composition, nor do they rely in any way on the chemical changes that result from the isolation of a particular section of DNA.”

As for Myriad’s cDNA claims, however, the Court – in a single, short paragraph – declared them eligible for patent protection because the “non-coding regions have been removed,” thus creating a new molecule not found in nature. Interestingly, the Court recognized the possibility of retrovirii potentially creating identical DNA transcripts to the cDNAs at issue, but dismissed this concern in a footnote: “The possibility that an unusual and rare phenomenon might randomly create a molecule similar to one created synthetically through human ingenuity does not render a composition of matter nonpatentable.”

Bizarrely, Justice Scalia joined the Court’s opinion in its entirety except for its preliminary scientific discussion. In a separate concurrence, Justice Scalia wrote: “I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief.” Typically, Justice Scalia does not qualify the factual portions of opinions he joins, even where they involve science. And notably, in the Court’s recent decision in Maryland v. King involving the constitutionality of warrantless DNA tests for arrestees, Justice Scalia’s dissent is replete with the factual differences between DNA and fingerprint testing.

This likely brings to a close Myriad Genetics’ saga of aggressively enforcing its patents directed to BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing. Myriad will continue to offer its BRACAnalysis product, which, because of its trade secret mutational database, is likely still the most robust BRCA test on the market. And competitors will be able to enter the BRCA testing market and make use of Myriad’s methods, although they will have to do so without the benefit of certain cDNA molecules or Myriad’s clinical data.

But the decision leaves a number of legal questions unanswered: What about other patents directed to “isolated and purified” natural products? Are cDNAs nonetheless obvious, and therefore unpatentable for that reason? And, considering the Court’s mention of retrovirii, how “unusual and rare” must a “natural phenomena” be to still be patent eligible if synthetically created? These are issues that the lower courts are likely to struggle with going forward, and issues that may, one day, be back in the hands of the Supreme Court.

Jake Sherkow, JD, is a fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Law and the Biosciences. His current research focuses on the intersection of patent law, biotechnology, and agency regulation.

Previously: Supreme Court rules on Myriad’s “gene patenting” case and Are genes patentable? A summary of the Supreme Court case

3 Responses to “ A closer look at Supreme Court's decision on gene patenting ”

  1. Catherine Says:

    The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that human genes are not patentable has set the stage for a new era of access to genetic information. Next, we must fill the information gap left by restricted data access and free our data! Free the Data! is a grass-roots campaign that will create an open, searchable database of genetic information allowing for better diagnosis and care, while protecting patient privacy. See

  2. Jane Says:

    Landmark ruling: Question: What now happens to discovery concerning natural products isolated from plants, bacteria, bee hives, flowers, herbs etc. that have tremendous activity and potency in treatment of many human ailments. If the natural product can be synthesized and derivatized and still maintain activity patent protection can be created….but many of these products lose activity when synthesized and altered….so do we lose out on nature’s protections as a result of not being able to patent any natural product? No drug company, research institution or biotech company will invest the large sums of money necessary for clinical trials in the absence of patent protection….to recover their investment. Will our government now pick up the slack? I doubt it …..with an upcoming 2 Billion dollar cut in NIH funding…..I believe we are being severely compromised on this particular front.

  3. P W Green Says:

    Michael Crichton, thou should’st be living at this hour !

    In his novel “NeXt”, Crichton gives excellent argurments against patenting of genes. He probably goes further in this regard than the Supremes did, but he has the advantage of a medical education and further study of bio-medical issues.

    I think this decision will do more to promote research and find useful tests and drugs than continuation of gene patents would have done. Likewise to make such discovieries affordable to the general patient populatioon.


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