News / USA

Supreme Court Hears Gene Patent Case

For more than 30 years, companies in the U.S. have been able to patent human genes, giving them exclusive rights to produce drugs, diagnostic tests or other tools based on those genes. But now the U.S. Supreme Court is revisiting this controversial issue. The high court heard arguments Monday in a case that has implications for medicine, agriculture, clean energy and beyond. 
 
Myriad Genetics was the first company to identify two genes that, when defective, greatly increase a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer, two of the most common and lethal forms of the disease. 
 
The company patented the genes and used them to produce a test for the gene defects. Patent protection gave Myriad a 20-year monopoly to recoup its investment. 
 
But outside the Supreme Court, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Chris Hansen said a part of the human body cannot be patented.
 
“The Supreme Court has held for 150 years that you can’t patent a product of nature. You can’t patent gold or iron. A human gene is nothing more than just the same thing. Its structure and function are dictated by nature. It’s not an invention," he said. 
 
But isolating those genes took a great deal of work and a $500 million investment. Greg Castanias is Myriad’s attorney. 
 
“It’s not just the work but it’s ultimately what the result of the work was, which was a new molecule that was never before available to the world, which has potentially lifesaving applications," he said. 
 
The biotechnology industry says gene patents have led to other potentially lifesaving applications like synthetic insulin for diabetics, new treatment for anemia, and many other products. 
 
Castanias says striking down these patents would stifle new advances. 
 
“One possibility is that investment in the biotechnology sector might dry up. Another possibility is that inventions like these, instead of being protected by patents, companies might resort to trade secrets," he said. 
 
Castanias says that while patents are freely available for others to study and learn from, trade secrets would push these discoveries underground. 
 
But the ACLU’s Chris Hansen says the patents risk doing more harm than good. 
 
“Myriad has the authority to stop all research on a piece of the human body. That ought to be sufficient harm in and of itself. But also, Myriad has, in fact, prevented women from getting a second opinion," he said. 
 
A second opinion in the form of another test that could be more accurate. 
 
Companies making biotech products from energy-producing algae to genetically modified cotton are watching the case closely. They are concerned that a strict ruling against gene patents could choke off innovation in the industry.
 
During oral arguments, the Supreme Court justices appeared to be seeking a balance. Many were skeptical that an isolated piece of DNA is substantially different from the same gene found in the body. But they seemed to be looking for ways to allow biotech patents that would protect innovation. 
 
A decision is expected this summer.

You May Like

For Lebanon-based Refugees, Desperation Fuels Perilous Passage

In a war that has caused an estimated three million people to flee Syria, efforts to make perilous sea journey in search of asylum expected to increase More

South African Brewer Tackles Climate Change

Mega-brewer SAB Miller sent delegates to climate summit in Peru, says it is one of many private companies taking their own steps to fight climate change More

Indonesia Reports Increase in Citizens Joining Islamic State

Officials say more than 350 of its citizens are now in Syria or Iraq to fight with Islamic State - 50 more than last month More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countriesi
X
December 16, 2014 2:14 PM
Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video Turkey's Authoritarianism Dismays Western Allies

The Turkish government has been defiant in the face of criticism at home and abroad for its raids targeting opposition media. The European Union on Monday expressed dismay after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Brussels for criticizing his government's action. Turkey's bid to be considered for EU membership has been on hold while critics accuse the NATO ally of increasingly authoritarian rule. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video US-China Year in Review: Hong Kong to Climate Change

The United States is pushing for a code of conduct to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea as it works to improve commercial ties with Beijing. VOA State Department correspondent Scott Stearns reports on a year of U.S. policy toward China from Hong Kong to climate change.
Video

Video Japanese Leader’s Election Win Raises Potential for Conflict with Neighbors

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his allies easily won a two-thirds majority in parliament Sunday, even though the country has slipped into recession under his conservative policies. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Seoul, that the prime minister’s victory will empower him to continue economic reforms but also pursue a nationalist agenda that will likely increase tensions with Japan’s neighbors.
Video

Video Nuba Mountain Families Hide in Caves to Escape Aerial Bombings

Despite ongoing peace talks between Sudan's government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, or SPLM-N, daily aerial attacks continue in South Kordofan province’s Nuba Mountains. Adam Bailes was there and reports for VOA that government forces are targeting civilian areas, rather than military positions, with their daily bombardments.
Video

Video Indonesian Province to Expand Sharia Law

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and a legal system based on Dutch civil law and Indonesian government regulations. But in a 2001 compromise with separatists, Aceh province in Sumatra island’s north was allowed to implement Sharia law. Since then, religious justice has become increasingly strict. VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh.
Video

Video Some Russian Businesses Thrive in Poor Economy

Capital flight, the fall in oil prices and Western sanctions are pushing Russia's staggering economy into recession. But not companies are suffering. The ruble’s drop in value has benefited exporters as well as businesses targeting increasingly frugal customers. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.

All About America

AppleAndroid