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

UN Watchdog Urges Israel to Probe Possible Gaza War Crimes

More than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed in a 51-day war in Gaza, along with 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel More

New Kenyan 'Thin SIMs' Poised to Transform African Mobile Money

Equity's new technology is approved in African nation for one-year trial, though industry leader Safaricom says thin SIMs could lead to data theft and fraud More

Solar's Future Looks Brighter

New technology and dropping prices are contributing to a surge in solar power More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid