New Castle News

Editorials

June 14, 2013

Our Opinion: Supreme Court rejects patents on human coding

NEW CASTLE — We can all take comfort in knowing we still retain the rights to our own genetic material.

That might seem to be obvious, but a case before the U.S. Supreme Court involved questions over whether private companies could patent human genes as their own.

Fortunately, the high court this week ruled — unanimously we would add — that human genes are not eligible for patents.

And the court based its decision seemingly on common sense: The genes being cited in this particular case weren’t invented by the company seeking a patent — a typical prerequisite for such a claim. It merely discovered the strands of genetic material in question.

At issue were two genes, called BRCA1 and BRCA2 that Myriad Genetics Inc. had isolated during its research. These two genes are linked to the development of breast and ovarian cancer.

Myriad and other medical research firms were pushing for patents with the argument that this designation provides protection for their discoveries and creates a financial incentive to seek out new ones.

However, others in the medical community claimed the patenting of genes would force additional payments to firms holding these legal rights and significantly increase the overall cost of health care.

And then there were the civil liberties issues, with a host of questions arising over matters related to the ownership of genes that make up human beings.

The Supreme Court’s ruling did not leave Myriad in the lurch. The decision supported the company’s patent for a synthetic form of DNA it produced as a result of the genetic discoveries. The court rightly observed this was something the firm produced in its labs and wasn’t simply the result of careful observation.

This new substance, called cDNA can be used by Myriad for its cancer detection products and presumably allow it to generate a profit from its genetic research.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Companies are, of course, in the business of making money. Take away the potential for profits and why would Myriad — or any other firm for that matter — engage in genetic or other medical research?

While a selfless quest to discover cures for assorted human ills is a noble concept, the reality is that medical advances don’t work that way. Plenty of expensive research comes up empty, so there has to be a payoff for success.

But allowing profit has to be within reason. For instance, no company would be granted a patent for oxygen because it was needed to operate its new fuel-efficient engine.

It would appear that in this instance, the Supreme Court has struck the proper balance. The decision on genes and patents is sensible, and it still allows researchers to get a bang for their buck.

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