Year in Review: High court rules against gene patents

Justices open way for choices in DNA testing


A Supreme Court decision in June to strike down a company’s patent on genes linked to breast cancer could have far-reaching consequences for biotechnology and medical research.

In a rare unanimous decision, the justices ruled that naturally occurring genes may not be patented. That ruling came in a case in which many scientists, activist groups and others sued Myriad Genetics. That company had previously patented the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. When mutated, those genes can greatly increase the risk of breast cancer.

Myriad’s patent gave that company the exclusive right to conduct tests based on those two genes. The court’s decision means that Myriad’s patent is invalid and other companies may now offer BRCA tests. Several companies, including medical testing giant Quest Diagnostics, have already started offering such tests.

Patient advocacy groups, doctors and academic scientists embraced the decision, predicting that it would pave the way for cheaper, more readily accessible tests for inherited cancer risk.

Some people, though, warned that biotechnology companies would stop doing genetic research if gene patents aren’t allowed. But the Supreme Court included a carrot along with the stick. Part of the decision included a provision that allows for patents of versions of genes known as cDNAs. Scientists cried foul at the justices’ incorrect assertion that cDNAs don’t occur naturally, but that provision could allow companies to patent certain aspects of their research (SN Online: 6/14/13).

See all top science stories of 2013 

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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