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Supreme Court: We'll decide if human genes can be patented

Posting in Cancer

The Supreme Court agreed on Friday that it would make the decision as to whether human genes can be patented.

Reuters reports that the controversial issue, which has the potential to impact global healthcare, treatment, and research worldwide, is now in the hands of the court, who will decide whether corporations have the right to patent genes they discover.

As previously reported on SmartPlanet, Myriad Genetics Inc. is at the heart of the issue.

The U.S. biotechnology company believes that it has the right to patent two genes linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2. Myriad Genetics acquired a patent for the BRCA1 breast cancer genetic mutation in 1994, based on the terms that could be considered an ‘invention’:

“Removing it from the body changed it chemically, structurally and functionally.”

To be understood, the gene became an "invention" once it was removed from the body and was discovered using Myriad's gene test, BRACAnalysis. However, critics say allowing any private firm to patent a gene could hamper scientific research and overall future patient care.

The Federal Circuit upheld Salt Lake City-based Myriad's patents last year in court, saying the firm had the right to patent "isolated" genes, but denied the company the right to patent methods of "analyzing or comparing" DNA sequence strands.

Appeals have been made against upholding the patents by a variety of medical professionals, of which the case is being handled by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Myriad says that denying patent protection could result in slowing personalized medicine down, as innovative diagnostics cost a fortune to develop. In comparison, critics say it is could simply be the next step in privatizing worldwide healthcare -- by giving firms a monopoly on genetic discovery and the use of mutated genes in research.

"Some critics say it is unjust to give a company a monopoly over something as intrinsic to people's health as their genes," Josephine Johnston, a research scholar at The Hastings Center, told the publication.

"From an ethics perspective, one could argue that genes are owned by everybody, and that patenting them amounts to a commodification of an element of the human body."

A decision is expected by the Supreme Court by the end of June.

Image credit: Zitona

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— By on December 2, 2012, 9:19 PM PST

Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure