A gene patent is the exclusive rights to a specific sequence of DNA (a gene) given by a government to the individual, organisation or corporation who claims to have first identified the gene. Once granted a gene patent, the holder of the patent dictates how the gene can be used, in both commercial settings, such as clinical genetic testing, and in noncommercial settings, including research, for 20 years from the date of the patent. Gene patents have often resulted in companies having sole ownership of genetic testing for patented genes.On June 13, 2013, in the case of the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a unanimous decision that human genes cannot be patented in the U.S. because DNA is a “product of nature.”
These tests thrust into the global spotlight when actress Angelina Jolie revealed she underwent a double mastectomy after such a test found her at higher risk for developing breast cancer. In the case, Myriad argued that the DNA it isolated for its cancer tests were patentable, but the court ruled otherwise. The court,however, didn’t impose a restriction on patenting the synthetically created genetic material, called “complementary” DNA or “cDNA.” Michael Bennett, an associate professor in the School of Law at Northeastern University, examined the impact of the ruling.
The ruling did not come as a surprise to Michael as he termed it as pretty obvious and straightforward. The reason behind not patenting the genetic information encoded in DNA strands was its isolation or discovery, as such information falls into that exceptional category.This ruling gets wired down to a fundamental question for innovation policy. For those who believe that higher rates of innovation and largely unfettered technological development contribute to society in a strictly positive fashion, this ruling is a good thing. However, those who don’t regard this continuous innovation as the improvers of society will likely see a downside.