The U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous ruling last week — that companies may no longer patent human genes — resonated across the cancer community, resulting in promising news for cancer patients and researchers. The court decided that Myriad Genetics, a biotech company based in Salt Lake City, may no longer patent the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes for commercial value. Those two genes are associated with elevated risk of breast, ovarian and prostate cancers, and were highly publicized following actress Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy.
Because Myriad no longer holds exclusive rights to BRCA1 and BRCA2, other companies and laboratories around the country can now offer testing on these genes. This decision may also result in decreased testing costs now that the market is no longer cornered. Another potential benefit from this decision is the opportunity to test other genes. Last week’s ruling opens the door for different types of exploration and examination.
In addition to the reasons mentioned above, human genes should not be patented simply because they come from within us. Our genes define who we are. They are part of our individual signature. To help understand, imagine a golf ball. If you remove the cover of that golf ball, you’ll see a smaller, round ball inside, tightly wound with rubber bands. Our DNA is like the inside of that golf ball — wound very tightly within each cell of our body. If you were to unravel your DNA and string it out, you would get a sequence of genes. Companies like Myriad will no longer be able to take those genes and commercialize them.
Critics of this decision argue that it could stifle entrepreneurial spirit. This is not true. There will still be plenty of opportunities for companies to commercialize the assays around a gene, or find better ways to perform or interpret certain assays. This decision simply removes the restrictions around the gene itself.
The bottom line is that placing exclusive confines around a specific gene inhibits scientific freedom, and stunts research and potential progress. Those of us who work in the field of personalized medicine were paying special attention to this case, and we were expecting and hoping for this result. It’s great news for cancer patients and the future of cancer research, and, therefore, good news for all of us.