Human Gene Patents – Roads to Medical Advancement or Ethical Wormholes?

The biotech industry is flourishing. With the latest advances in medical science, logic prevails that with these advances come unique substances and processes setting unprecedented court rulings which will affect the future of scientific research. Given this, to what extent can the scientific community patent human materials? You were not made in a factory, so can a company legally patent a molecular structure that comes from your body?

That is the question that will be asked when the U.S. Supreme Court hears the case Association of Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. The mainline issue is whether DNA sequences isolated to research a possible breast cancer gene can be patented. For decades, it has been established in patent law that elements as they are found in nature cannot be patented. As for such patents involving DNA, the DNA must be modified such that it is not in the same form as it is borne in you.

Molecular Pathology contends that human genomes are indeed naturally occurring phenomena, and as such cannot be patented. Molecular further contends that such patents limit the scientific community’s ability to carry research advances forward without violation thereof and so the patents would hinder the very advances Myriad and other biotech companies set out to make. Myriad, on the other hand, defends this argument by characterizing these genomes as “isolated sequences” to distinguish them as different from those occurring naturally in the human body. U.S. Patent Law allows for “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new improvement thereof”. Myriad currently holds 23 such patents.What are your thoughts? Do patents like these encourage or hinder innovation? Has the biotech industry crossed an ethical line? Tell us what you think.

If you are a member of the biotech industry and have questions about these and other patent issues, please contact us.

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