Supreme Court Decisions 2013: Court says human genes cannot be patented, allows patents for synthetic DNA material

(Photo: Reuters / Alastair Grant / Pool)Actress and humanitarian campaigner Angelina Jolie speaks at a news conference on sexual violence against women during the G8 Foreign Ministers Meeting in central London April 11, 2013.

The US Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Tuesday that a genetics company cannot patent a sequence of naturally-occurring human genes it discovered, which it has used to assess a patient's cancer risk.

As part of the ruling, the court said Salt Lake City-based Myriad Genetics, Inc. could patent what is known as composite DNA (cDNA), which is synthetically created by laboratory technicians.

The company was recently in the spotlight after actress Angelina Jolie revealed that she had a double mastectomy when Myriad's tests showed she had a gene mutation putting her at high risk for breast cancer.

The group of doctors, patients and researchers which sued Myriad Genetics argued that the company's patents were blocking clinical testing and research.

The case is Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, No. 12-398.

"A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but cDNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring," Justice Clarence Thomas in the court's ruling.

He also commented on Myriad's gene discovery work in relation to patents.

"To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention. Groundbreaking, innovative, or even brilliant discovery does not by itself satisfy the [patent law] inquiry," he wrote.

The genes Myriad patent are known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, which when mutated can increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Roger D. Klein, a committee chair with the AMP said the ruling "removed a significant barrier to innovation in molecular pathology testing."

Myriad Genetics said in a statement the ruling vacated some patent claims and upheld others. It said it would reach out to patient advocates and the research community.

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