As Myriad Genetics prepares to defend its seven patents on the BRCA genes, which are associated with a higher risk of breast, ovarian, and other cancers, James Watson, famed co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, has weighed in, arguing against the patenting of genes on the basis that they are products of nature.
“In addition to understanding the uniqueness of human DNA, I hope that an awareness of the Human Genome Project’s history will guide the Court to the correct decision that human genes, as products of nature, should not be patented,” Watson wrote in an amicus brief filed this week with the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. “The human genome project was intended to benefit all, not just select companies,” added Watson, who said that he left his post that the National Institutes of Health when the agency began pursuing gene patents.
In July 2011, an appeals court in New York upheld Myriad Genetics’ patents, arguing that they were based on isolated and amplified DNA sequences, and thus are not direct products of nature. Last month, however, after the Supreme Court ruled against two patents held by Prometheus Laboratories on two blood tests, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Public Patent Foundation took Myriad back to court.
Watson argues that, contrary to what lawyers and judges seem to believe, patent protection is not a suitable incentive for scientists to encourage the discovery of human genes. “A scientist does not—and should not—expect to obtain a legal monopoly controlling the information encoded by human genes,” he wrote. On the contrary, patenting genes could delay research, particularly the development of diagnostics that use multiple genes to identify a particular disease. If gene patents exist, he added, their holders should be required to license them to anyone who wants to study those genes further.
Others, such as Patent Docs’ Kevin Noonan, on the other hand, argue that gene patents would not stop researchers from using the genetic information. Tomorrow (July 20), the federal appeals court in Washington, DC, will hear arguments on both sides to help make its decision.
(Hat tip to GenomeWeb.)