Friday, June 21, 2013

Left Side of the Aisle #113 - Part 1

Good news #1: SCOTUS says human DNA cannot be parented

I always like to start off when I can with some good news and this week there are three good news items, all of them from a truly unexpected source: the US Supreme Court.

On June 13, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in a suit brought by the Association for Molecular Pathology that companies cannot patent parts of naturally-occurring human genes, reversing three decades of patent awards by government officials.

The opinion was written by Clarence Thomas, who wrote that patents held by Myriad Genetics Inc. on an increasingly popular breast cancer test are invalid because they violate patent rules. The court has said in the past that laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable, standards that have been long ignored by the US Patent Office.

Myriad had claimed a patent on two specific human genes it used to come up with its BRACAnalysis test, which looks for mutations on the breast cancer predisposition gene, or BRCA. Those mutations are linked to an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad sells the only BRCA gene test because it can use the patents to keep other researchers from working with the BRCA gene to develop other tests.

The Court ruled that "a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated."

The Chicken Littles who say that research will collapse if companies can't patent things like genes and plants and other natural phenomena are either foolish or corporate shills. For one thing, the Court also ruled that synthetically created DNA, known as complementary DNA or cDNA, can be patented “because it is not naturally occurring,” that is, it doesn't exist in nature.

And as Thomas pointed out, there are ways for Myriad to make money off its discovery. For one example, it could have sought a method patent on the particular way its test works. You just can't patent nature. And that's good news.

There's an amusing - sort of amusing, anyway, because it doesn't make a difference here but could under other circumstances - anyway, a sort of amusing footnote:

Justice Antonin Scalia voted with the majority, but wrote his own concurrence to make it clear that he didn't agree with parts of Thomas's opinion. He said "I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its opinion except Part I–A and some portions of the rest" because "I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief."

What's section I-A? That's the part where Thomas recited the basic fundamentals of molecular biology, stuff any first-year college student - or maybe even high-school senior - would have to know to pass a biology course, stuff Scalia is "unable to affirm on my own knowledge or even belief." Antonin Scalia, it seems, doesn't believe in genes.


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