The United States Supreme Court has today (June 13) unanimously ruled that isolated human genes cannot be patented, but the Justices also ruled that synthetic DNA sequences—known as complimentary DNA (cDNA)—are eligible for protection. “A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, “but cDNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring.”

The decision throws out patents held by Utah-based Myriad Genetics on two genes—BRCA1 and BRCA2—that when mutated cause breast and other types of cancer. Researchers, physicians, and patients who sued Myriad are claiming victory because the ruling means that the company no longer has a monopoly on diagnostic tests based on these two genes. This could result in increased competition, falling costs, and greater access for low-income patients.

“The Court struck down a major barrier to patient care...

Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, added: "The decision represents a victory for all those eagerly awaiting more individualized, gene-based approaches to medical care. The right to control exclusively the use of a patient's genes could have made it more difficult to access new tests and treatments."

The decision is also something of a compromise, however, because it allows biotech companies to patent artificial DNA sequences. Myriad and other companies had argued that a ruling against gene patenting would undermine billions of dollars of investment from the biotech industry and impede medical progress. With this ruling, they still have ways to profit from their research.

Update (June 13): This article has been update to include a quote from NIH Director Francis Collins.

Interested in reading more?

The Scientist ARCHIVES

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!