How the High Court saved genetic innovation


It’s difficult to confine a helix to paper, it being a curvature in three dimensional space and paper being, well, not. As it were, wild helices just can’t be patented, but leave it to some corporate wranglers to give it the old cowboy try anyway.

So entered Myriad Genetics Inc. to give the legal lasso a whirl and so left the company this Thursday — albeit a BRCA buck shy — when the United States Supreme Court ruled that genetic patents don’t belong in Dodge or any other American town. 

For all intents and purposes, the unanimous decision deeming genetic patents unconstitutional would appear to be a loss for the company, yet receiving the go-ahead from the Court to claim cDNA on the page — synthetic DNA made specifically by Myriad — seemed victory enough.

“We believe the court appropriately upheld our claims on cDNA, and underscored the patent eligibility of our method claims, ensuring strong intellectual property protection for our BRACAnalysis test moving forward,” said Peter D. Meldrum, company president and chief executive, in a prepared response. “More than 250,000 patients rely upon our BRACAnalysis test annually, and we remain focused on saving and improving peoples’ lives and lowering overall health-care costs.”

The ruling is a victory for everyone, in fact — patients, doctors, researchers and companies alike. Not only does DNA get to remain unincorporated (thus maintaining its natural integrity), but the scientific quest for cure and innovation is no more legally bound or barricaded than it was before. As Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the official ruling for the Court: “Patent protection strikes a delicate balance between creating ‘incentives that lead to creation, invention, and discovery’ and ‘imped[ing]the flow of information that might permit, indeed spur, invention.’”

The genes called into question via the case, BRCA1 and BRCA2, had garnered even more attention (outside of the case) through actress Angelina Jolie when she published a letter disclosing a preventative double mastectomy after undergoing genetic testing. That $3,000 test, according to the New York Time, was partially so expensive due to the Myriad patent. Now that the patent has been put to rest, the price "should come down significantly" Harry Ostrer, MD, told the Times, allowing for more patients to be able to afford the option.  

Therein, today is a day for celebration across all scapes, for all reasons. As the American Civil Liberties Union confirmed, “a major barrier to patient care and medical innovation” has been demolished, allowing patients to have “greater access to genetic testing” and scientists the freedom to work without fear of legal ramification.

Read the court opinion here and rest easy knowing your double helix won’t face double jeopardy of the courtroom variety anytime soon.