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

Polls Open in Scotland Independence Vote

As race to persuade undecided voters continues, 'No' voters say they believe life in Scotland will slowly improve, 'Yes' vote not worth the risk More

China-India Border Standoff Continues as Leaders Hold Summit

New Delhi accuses hundreds of Chinese soldiers of illegally entering Indian territory in disputed region of Ladakh More

Ukrainian Activist in Despair About Future of Her Country

IrIna Dovgan, accused of being a spy and tortured by pro-Russian separatists, is appealing to UN Human Rights Council to support her country More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Wateri
X
September 17, 2014 8:44 PM
Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid