The Supreme Court of the United States just handed down a landmark ruling today when it comes to the practice of patenting genes from the DNA of living organisms. In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the court ruled that "a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated," invalidating biotech company Myriad's claim to exclusive rights on two breast-cancer causing genes in humans, which the company argued it should be able to patent because it was the first to isolate them and identify their function.
However, the Supreme Court did uphold the legal right for companies and individuals to file patents on synthetic genes, those strands of DNA and genetic material that are modified in a laboratory. That gives the company Myriad a partial victory, upholding its patent on a modified version of the breast-cancer genes it identified and isolated. "We hold that a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but that cDNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring," the court said in its ruling.
"a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible."
Interestingly, the court also addressed the possibility that natural mutations could lead to a DNA sequence that was very similar to a synthetic one created by a company or scientists, but said that this was not good enough to render patents on such synthetic genes invalid. "The possibility that an unusual and rare phenomenon might randomly create a molecule similar to one created synthetically through human ingenuity does not render a composition of matter nonpatentable," the court said. A lawyer familiar with the case, but who was not involved in litigation, told The Verge that the ruling was narrow as expected, but had the potential to have large ramifications on the biotech industry and medicine.
Russell Brandom contributed to this report.