Patenting nature

Patenting nature

This package originally appeared on the Pod Delusion episode 192 on June 21st 2013

On June 13th, the US Supreme courts gave their final verdict on the Association for molecular Pathology vs Myriad Genetics case.

The story started in 2009, when the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) filed a case against Myriad Genetics (a Utah based biotech company) on behalf of researchers, patients, medical organisations and many others, arguing that naturally occurring human genetic sequences cannot be patented as they are products of nature, and hence should not be monopolised and exploited.

What Myriad had done was to patent the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. These particular genes, when they contain faults, are key indicators for a woman’s likelyhood to have breast cancer. Take Angelina Jolie, who on May 14th 2013, made an announcement in the NYT that she had had a preventative double mastectomy because she of an “87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.”

She knew this because she had paid the hefty sum of $3000 to be tested for defaults within the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes to identify her likelihood of getting breast cancer. By telling her story, she was hoping to inspire other women to get tested, but at the same time she said that the price tag for a test was “an obstacle for many women.” What she didn’t do was say why.

The reason the test was so expensive was that in 1998 Myriad Genetics had patented the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. This doesn’t mean that they literally own a piece of your genetics; instead they own the BRCA1 and 2 genetic sequences once they had been isolated from nature. But as they had exclusive rights to these genes, Myriad was then able to develop tests for the mutations of the genes which they trademarked “BRCAnalysis”. As a result no one else was able to provide a test for them. Myriad had the monopoly on BRCA1 and 2.

So now it is no longer possible to patent any naturally occurring human genetic sequences, according to the decision made by the US Supreme Courts. But there is more to it.

I dug a little deeper and spoke to Dr Siva Thambisetti, a biotech patent expert from LSE and Rob Carlson, founder of Biodesic, a biotech company in Seattle, to find out a bit more.