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Court says isolated human genes cannot be patented

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously threw out attempts to patent human genes, siding with advocates who say the multibillion-dollar biotechnology industry should not have exclusive control over genetic information found inside the human body.

But the high court also approved for the first time the patenting of synthetically created DNA, known as complementary DNA or cDNA, handing a victory to researchers and companies looking to come up with ways to fight — and profit — from medical breakthroughs that could reverse life-threatening diseases such as breast or ovarian cancer.

The decision "sets a fair and level playing field for open and responsible use of genetic information," said Dr. Robert B. Darnell, president and scientific director of the New York Genome Center.

The high court's judgment, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, reverses three decades of patent awards by government officials and throws out patents held by Salt Lake City-based Myriad Genetics Inc. Those patents involved a breast cancer test brought into the public eye by actor Angelina Jolie's revelation that she had a double mastectomy after learning she carries a defective gene that puts her at high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers.

The high court's ruling immediately prompted one of Myriad's competitors to announce it would offer the same test at a far lower price. DNATraits, part of Houston-based Gene By Gene Ltd., said it would offer BRCA gene testing for $995, less than a third of the current price.

Dr. Rebecca Sutphen, a professor of genetics at University of South Florida, called the ruling part of a critical effort to knock down cost barriers for countless people at risk of hereditary cancer. The first key event, she said, was when the federal health care law began requiring insurance plans to pay 100 percent of the costs of genetic counseling for people with a family history suggestive of cancer risk.

"I would say that it's kind of the completion of a one-two punch," said Sutphen, who also works as the chief medical officer for InformedDNA, a St. Petersburg company that offers telephone-based genetic counseling.

Sutphen, a breast and ovarian cancer researcher, said the ruling could also increase participation in studies. That's because grants often aren't large enough to cover the costs of commercial testing, meaning researchers aren't able to offer testing results to participants.

Other experts said the decision mitigates potential damage to the multibillion-dollar biomedical and biotechnological industries.

"The decision is likely to have the greatest impact on diagnostic/genetic screening patents similar to those at issue in Myriad, but the ruling will impact the patent-eligibility of other newly discovered compounds that are 'isolated' from nature, such as medicinal compounds isolated from plants, beneficial proteins isolated from human or animal sources, and beneficial microorganisms isolated from soil or the deep sea," said Courtenay Brinckerhoff, a lawyer at international health law firm Foley & Lardner.

Times staff writer Jodie Tillman contributed to this report.

Court says isolated human genes cannot be patented 06/13/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 14, 2013 1:50pm]
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