Can my DNA be patented? No, say justices

A slide with DNA is seen in the genetics lab where a human genomicist and a human geneticist did research that discovered the cause of retinitis pigmentosa, a form of blindness.

The Supreme Court says human genes can’t be patented. But patents are allowed on synthetically-produced genetic material. The case involved Myriad Genetics, which holds patents on two genes that can determine whether a women has an increased chance of breast or ovarian cancer.

For companies that rely on patenting human genes to make products -- like genetic tests for cancer -- the court’s decision is disastrous.

“This is a major decision that’s kind of a tsunami that’s going to move through the biotech industry," says Art Caplan, the director of ethics at NYU’s medical center.

Caplan says the tsunami will destroy companies that don’t innovate, that don’t pivot quickly and start making products with genes they’ve changed to make synthetic materials, which can be patented.

Juan Enriquez heads Excel Venture management, a biotech venture capital firm. He says lots of companies are already doing this, using synthetic material to make everything from food to biofuels.

He says, “You can design cells so they begin producing specific fuels or specific chemicals.” 

And now that human genes can’t be patented, researchers will have more access to them. It’ll be cheaper for patients to have their genetic codes mapped out. Edward Abrahams heads the Personalized Medicine Coalition and says your doctor could look at your genetic code to decide how much medicine, and which medicine, to give you.

He explains, “If you have a certain genetic profile, whether Drug A or B or C is going to work for you."

Abrahams says the Supreme Court case did create winners and losers. But consumers should come out on the winning side.  With lots of new biotech products just over the horizon.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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