Local researchers celebrate high court's ruling against gene patents

SEATTLE -- The Supreme Court ruled Thursday companies can no longer patent human genes, reversing decades of patent awards and potentially paving the way for better, more personal health care.

Companies that have invested billions of dollars and spent years researching genes have argued patents provide a crucial financial incentive to genetic research, but a local genome specialist says research will be easier and less expensive without gene patents.

The Patent Act of 1952 allows "human-made inventions" to become private property but excludes "products of nature." Decades later, companies were allowed to patent segments of DNA which scientists had extracted from human chromosomes, qualifying them as a man-made invention.

But, on Thursday the Supreme Court overturned these patents, ruling DNA segments are a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because they have been isolated.

"I'm thrilled to see them overturned," said Gail Jarvik head of the University of Washington Division of Medical Genetics. "It never made any sense that the sequence of a person's DNA was not part of nature."

Jarvik said patents made it inconvenient and expensive to test a patient's genes for risk factors related to cancers, neurologic diseases and autoimmune disorders.

"We are moving towards this era of personalized medicine using your genomic information to help direct medical care, to target the best treatment of cancer for a cancer based on the genetic sequence of the tumor," Jarvik said. "When huge chunks of the genome are owned by different companies that makes it impossible to test the entire genome [in the same place]."

The supreme court case threw out patents held by Myriad Genetics Inc. on the genetic test used by actress Angelina Jolie and many other women to detect BRCA genes which significantly increase a woman's chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer. Myriad was the only company allowed to test for these genes, which some say allowed them to drive the price up.

While companies like Myriad typically did not enforce patents on researchers, Jarvik said when they found genetic changes in a patient on a patented gene they would have to test the gene again through a patented company to use the results.

"There's this redundant testing step that's completely unnecessary except for the patent, and it makes it more expensive for everybody," Jarvik said. "There's no question [the court's decision] makes both the research and the clinical dollars stretch further."

Now, she said doctors will be able to test six to 20 cancer genes at a time for the same price as Myriad was testing two.

"With this patent overturned there will be cheaper and better testing for our patients," Jarvik said. "It will make things simpler for the patient, they will get a more complete answer sooner, and there will be less hassling with insurance companies over what gets covered."