The Supreme Court has an important decision to make in the case of Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. that would impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of women now, and millions more in the future.

The case, which is likely to be decided by the high court in June, is about patenting genes. Myriad Genetics Inc. patented two genes linked to an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and the company says its patents should stand, because the DNA it isolated from the body has a different chemical structure than DNA within the body.

However, some of the justices questioned this logic. According to the Associated Press, Chief Justice John Roberts said a metaphor comparing the genes to a baseball bat didn’t prove the company’s case:

“The baseball bat is quite different. You don’t look at a tree and say, well, I’ve cut the branch here and cut it here and all of a sudden I’ve got a baseball bat. You have to invent it, if you will. You don’t have to invent the particular segment of the strand. You just have to cut it off.”

Abstract ideas, natural phenomena and laws of nature cannot be awarded patents ”“ the legal protection that gives inventors the right to prevent others from making, using or selling a novel device, process or application, according to the AP. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been awarding patents on human genes for 30 years, the AP reported, but that doesn’t mean it should have been.

In addition to the issue of whether or not genes are allowed to be patented ”“ whether they are natural phenomena ”“ the court’s decision will have serious implications on people suffering from all kinds of diseases and disorders, not just breast cancer.

The American Civil Liberties Union is opposing Myriad’s claim to the patents, and has cited the lack of opportunity for research and other tests and treatments if the genes themselves are patented ”“ as opposed to just Myriad’s tests for the genes.

Rachel Myers Healy, communications director for the ACLU of Maine, said in a recent statement that because Myriad is the only lab in the U.S. that can test for the gene mutations indicating breast and ovarian cancer, women can’t get a second opinion. Another problem, the ACLU says, is that scientists outside of Myriad cannot work to improve the tests on the genes, and cancer researchers in particular cannot access the information from the genes to better understand them and develop medical care and treatment.

These are serious issues and will play a part in the court’s decision.

What part remains to be seen.

Denying these patents would keep the opportunities open for researchers and pharmaceutical companies to work competitively into the future on better, earlier identifiers for cancers, and hopefully one day, develop cures.

It’s unlikely, as Myriad claims, that companies will drop these pursuits without gene patents. Cancer treatment is big business, and a cure would mean huge profits for the company that is able to create the first drug to do so. New drugs are developed under patent protection just like any other product can be, according to the FDA’s website. The patent protects the investment in the drug’s development by giving the company the sole right to sell the drug while the patent is in effect, and when the patent expires, other drug manufacturers create and sell generic versions.

This gives companies incentive to create new drugs. That incentive should be enough for companies like Myriad to create their tests and continue research to create more and better products for medical diagnostics and treatment.

The Supreme Court needs to weigh all of the possible consequences in this case before making a decision that could impact millions of lives.


Today’s editorial was written by City Editor Robyn Burnham on behalf of the Journal Tribune Editorial Board. Questions? Comments? Contact Managing Editor Kristen Schulze Muszynski by calling 282-1535, Ext. 322, or via email at [email protected].