Updated on 17 June 2013
How the case unfolded
In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Public Patent Foundation challenged seven patents held by Myriad Genetics on two human genes associated with breast and ovarian cancer. The patents were then held invalid in a federal court. The verdict was later overruled in an appeals court and has since moved to the US Supreme Court. Over 150,000 geneticists, pathologists, laboratory professions, researchers, genetic counselors, breast cancer support groups, cancer survivors, presented their arguments against gene patenting, asking the court to invalidate two of Myriad's patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2 (Breast Cancer) genes.
The Utah-based company had unequivocally argued that it deserved the patents as it required human ingenuity and judgment to become the first to isolate BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Everyone opposing the reasoning stated that genes cannot be patented because they are found in nature. Even, the global life sciences industry, to which Myriad belongs, had come out in arms against the company. Patenting genes stifles the ability of other scientists to study genes and slows the lifesaving research, the industry had claimed.
The medical fraternity argued that patents force people in the US to undergo tests that are inferior as well as costlier than those available in other countries. However, the groups representing biotech, pharmaceutical and agriculture companies supported Myriad in the global debate.
The debate reached its peak when a leading scientific journal interviewed double-helix co-discoverer Mr James Watson, who outrightly rejected the need to patent genes. The Nobel laureate, 85-year-old, Mr Watson, who is currently researching the link between cancer and genes, had also filed a brief in the case to argue against patenting genes. "Scientists should be permitted to experiment on human genes free from any threat of patent infringement. Life's instructions ought not be controlled by legal monopolies created at the whim of Congress or the courts," he boldly stated in his brief at the court.