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Supreme Court rules once and for all on gene patent debate

In an April post we brought to the attention of our readers the interesting debate going on in the scientific community regarding whether patents should be allowed on the human genome. Outlined in the post was the argument from scientists who had discovered genetic mutations that caused certain diseases such as breast and ovarian cancers. According to the scientists, they should be allowed to patent their discovery of the genes and be allowed to seek legal action against any company or scientist who violates that patent.

It's been debated now for months, with experts on both sides weighing in on the issue that this intellectual property dispute is creating and what effect it would have on millions of Americans across the country. As some of our readers here in Texas may remember, the issue gained so much precedence that the U.S. Supreme Court decided to take up the challenge of determining once and for all the fate of gene patenting.

In a unanimous vote this month, judges from the Supreme Court ruled that human genes would no longer qualify for patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Those who defended gene patents were ultimately challenged by the court and asked rhetorically whether something that occurs in the human body or in nature could really be "owned" by a company. According to Justice Clarence Thomas, the answer to this question was no, stating that Myriad Genetics Inc., which brought the case before the Supreme Court, did not create anything when it discovered the disease-causing gene mutations and that by separating the mutation from the rest of the human genome did not qualify as an invention.

Thomas did, however, side with Myriad for its development of synthetic DNA, also called cDNA. Thomas argued that "the lab technician unquestionably creates something new when cDNA is made." Though this means patents will be issued for this and other techniques that detect diseases, the court's decision will make genetic testing accessible to research facilities the country over without fear of being sued as a result.

Source: The Washington Post, "Supreme Court rules human genes may not be patented," Robert Barnes and Brady Dennis, June 13, 2013

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