Patenting the Genome

In 2013, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. went to the Supreme Court to determine the legitimacy of patenting DNA. Ultimately, it was unanimously voted that human genes cannot be patented, although patenting synthetic genes is still legal.

Myriad Genetics had isolated two human genes that were indicators of a predisposition for breast cancer. For many “inventions,” the United States government offers a legal monopoly, or patent, to the inventor in order to protect their right to develop and make money off their product. However, “’Myriad did not create anything,’ Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court. ‘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.’”

Its legal monopoly allowed Myriad Genetics to charge “4,000 dollars for comprehensive testing on just two genes” and “$700 for extra information that national guidelines say should be provided to patients.” Genetic sequencing of a whole genome, 20,000 genes instead of two, really costs around $1,000. Myriad Genetics was a patent troll—“a firm that owns a patent, but does not manufacture products or supply services based on it.” “It owned the genes, and didn’t want anyone trespassing on its property.” Myriad’s methods of testing for the two genes were not innovative or new and women were often at a loss to find a second opinion from another source because Myriad’s patent precluded other firms from testing for it. Its legal monopoly essentially allowed Myriad to price life, only women who could afford Myriad’s expensive prices could determine if they were at high risk for breast cancer.

“Not surprisingly, [Myriad] made labored arguments that its patents, which allowed monopolistic prices and exclusionary practices, were essential to incentivize future research.” This is the reasoning behind patenting, but, on the other hand, “In obtaining the patent, Myriad, like most corporations, seemed more motivated by maximizing profit than by saving lives—if it really cared about the latter, it could and would have done better at providing better, more accurate and cheaper tests.” In many cases, making inventions open source stimulates creativity and invention, where people invent for the sake of learning and improving, instead of stagnating in order to up profits.

Sources:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/14/how-intellectual-property-reinforces-inequality/?_r=1

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/14/us/supreme-court-rules-human-genes-may-not-be-patented.html

http://www.economist.com/news/business-and-finance/21645604?zid=317&ah=8a47fc455a44945580198768fad0fa41

http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/association-for-molecular-pathology-v-myriad-genetics-inc/

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