Sensible verdict

The US Supreme Court’s judgment that human genes cannot be patented might turn out to be an important reference point in the application of genetic research in public health and many other areas. The issue of patent claims on genes has been legally contentious in the US after patent authorities had accepted them for many companies.

Some court judgments had also supported this. The Supreme Court’s judgment, which came in a case relating to a company’s  patent claim on genes that cause breast and ovarian cancer, may have finally settled the issue. It was as a result of the tests developed by the company that claimed a patent on the cancer-causing genes that actress Angelina Jolie got her proneness to breast cancer confirmed and underwent a double mastectomy to reduce its chances. But the company’s patent claim made the tests very costly. With the rejection of the claim, any laboratory  with the requisite expertise can conduct the tests and they will become much cheaper.

The court rightly observed that the company’s claim was not valid because it did not create anything but only separated a naturally occurring gene from its surroundings. It has allowed patenting of synthetic DNA, or cDNA, which is artificially created in the laboratory.  The judgment has been welcomed as a great decision for biotechnology industry.  Many companies have till now claimed patents on thousands of human genes. These will now  be invalid. The judgment will also make patenting of bacterial genes or drugs derived from micro-organisms and plants difficult. Whole genome sequencing,  which had become difficult because of patent claims on individual genes, will now become possible.

The implications of the judgment are being studied. It is doubtful whether it will cover development of genetic crops. While public health advocates and social activists are happy, there is a view that it might disincentivise biotechnology research.  This is baseless because only  the kind of research which  seeks to virtually make human genes a company’s private property will be affected. The judgment has laid down a salutary basic principle. It is ethically unacceptable, and even dangerous, if our genes are claimed by a company.  But patent awards have been made on such claims and some past judicial decisions in the US had made this possible. The Supreme Court  verdict does away with that possibility.

Liked the story?

  • 0

    Happy
  • 0

    Amused
  • 0

    Sad
  • 0

    Frustrated
  • 0

    Angry