Editorial: Supreme Court is right on genes and patents

A technician loads patient samples into a machine A technician loads patient samples into a machine for testing at Myriad Genetics in Salt Lake City. (June 13, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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The Supreme Court yesterday ended a practice that was intellectually and ethically dubious and costly for consumers. The court ruled that human genes are a product of nature, not inventions, and can't be patented merely because they've been isolated in a lab. No company should have an exclusive, legally protected right to their use.

The unanimous decision eliminated patents held by Myriad Genetics Inc. on two genes, BRCA-1 and BRCA-2, used to determine if a person has a heightened risk of breast and ovarian cancer. By ending the Utah company's monopoly, the court cleared the way for other companies to conduct research on the genes and to develop competing tests. That should eventually lower the cost of the tests and make it possible for patients to confirm the results with a different test before undergoing aggressive treatments such as mastectomies.

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The ruling also has broad implications for the burgeoning field of personalized medicine -- a revolutionary approach that could end one-size-fits all medicine by allowing doctors to diagnose diseases and tailor treatments based on a person's individual genetic makeup.

Patent protection has to strike an important balance. Temporarily shielding a company from competition on products it has developed creates a powerful financial incentive to invest in innovation. The downside is that patents inhibit the free flow of scientific information that, if allowed, can also spur innovation.

By prohibiting patents on naturally occurring genes, while still allowing them for synthetically created genes or molecules created by manipulating genes, the ruling tipped the balance in the right direction.

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