News - June 27, 2013

'Common sense has finally prevailed'

The US Supreme Court recently ruled that genes cannot be patented. The ruling followed a lengthy battle between healthcare and human rights organizations and the biotech company Myriad Genetics, which has a lucrative monopoly on genetic tests for hereditary forms of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

The court passed a good judgement, thinks Henk van den Belt, lecturer in Applied Philosophy.
What do you think of the fact that the ruling has put an end to gene patents?
'I'm pleased common sense has finally prevailed, but it took a long time. Especially given that Myriad's patents expire in 2015. Fortunately this precedent will have a wider impact. It means an end to the isolation doctrine - the idea that isolating a piece of DNA is the equivalent of an invention. As one judge said, that's a typical lawyer's trick.'
Even so, the back door is wide open. You can still apply for patents for cDNA, a 'printout' of the coding DNA sections created in the lab.
'I would have liked to see a more radical judgement that rejected this kind of patent as well. While it is true that superfluous information has been removed from the cDNA, what remains was in the original DNA as well.'
Will biotech companies be seriously affected by this?
'That's difficult to say at this point. Companies warned beforehand that it would lead to the collapse of the industry but the response now is already more muted. You saw that uncertainty reflected in Myriad's share prices, which fluctuated wildly after the ruling.'
Will this judgement have an impact on us in Europe?
'That's a good question. In the EU we currently have a ridiculous regulation on biotech inventions dating from 1998. It says explicitly that genes can be patented even if they are identical to genes found in nature. It was introduced originally so that we wouldn't lag behind the US.'
Will this ruling have any consequences for the man in the street?
'Women in the US with an increased risk of breast or ovarian cancer will benefit. Genetic tests will become cheaper and will be available from more companies now that Myriad no longer has a monopoly.'