News / Health

Supreme Court Gene Ruling Benefits Biotech, Breast Cancer Research

FILE - A technician loads patient samples into a machine for testing at Myriad Genetics, May 31, 2002.
FILE - A technician loads patient samples into a machine for testing at Myriad Genetics, May 31, 2002.
Megan McGrath
Everyone has BRCA genes in their cells. If you are a woman and one of your BRCA gene copies has a mutation, your risk of developing breast cancer is very high - up to 87 percent in some cases.

A biotechnology company called Myriad Genetics Inc. was the first to discover the healthy, normal code of BRCA. Because a mutation is an error in that code, the normal sequence can be used to test for the breast cancer-causing BRCA mutation. Myriad developed the test, and won patent protection for it and the original BRCA gene.

Thursday, in a case against Myriad by the ACLU, the Supreme Court decreed that genes can no longer be patented, invalidating Myriad’s intellectual claim to the BRCA code. Yet both sides came away claiming victory.

So what happened, and what does this decision mean for cancer patients, medical researchers and biotechnology?

A patent is issued to give an inventor or developer intellectual and property rights to whatever has been made. The patent on the BRCA gene initially was granted for isolated DNA: the gene removed from the human body so that it may be worked with in the lab.

But the federal Patent Act states that an inventor may not claim intellectual property rights for “laws of nature” or “natural phenomena.”

The question was whether the isolated BRCA gene constituted a new invention, having been removed from the body. The Supreme Court unanimously decided that isolated DNA, though isolated, is still natural, and not a human invention.

According to Dr. Marisa Weiss, founder and president of, this could mean new research, cures and testing for women with BRCA mutations, and for cancer patients. Until now, researchers have had to pay for the isolated BRCA genetic code, which they need to have to understand how BRCA functions both on its own and in concert with other genes.

BRCA repairs errors in the DNA of breast tissue cells, and prevents unrestrained growth. So, if BRCA is damaged, breast tissue growth can go haywire, leading to cancer.

Five to 10 percent of all breast cancers are caused by BRCA mutation, and it also leads to a greatly increased risk of ovarian cancer. Freeing the isolated BRCA gene from its patent could allow researchers to develop more, cheaper tests for BRCA mutation, which could give more women at increased risk of developing cancer a chance to know their status earlier.

Women with BRCA mutations are advised to monitor their health with frequent breast MRIs, according to Dr. Weiss. They also may choose to undergo preventive mastectomies and removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes to avoid cancer.

With the early awareness provided by BRCA mutation testing, women may even choose to have children earlier to prepare for these surgeries.

American actress Angelina Jolie's recent decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy was a result of having discovered a mutation in one of her BRCA genes.

Myriad Genetics Inc. is not deprived by this decision, however, said Jennifer L. Swize, a lawyer who represented the biotech company. In fact, she said, “to Myriad, this decision is a win.” While the court overturned patents on isolated DNA, it made a point to uphold patents on cDNA (complementary DNA), or synthetic copies of the genetic sequence with useless “junk” segments removed.

CDNA is what Myriad uses in most of its BRCA research anyway, not unmodified isolated DNA. Patents on research and designs like the BRCA mutation test also were upheld. Myriad’s stock rose following the decision.

You May Like

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs