Thursday, Apr. 15, 2010

The Patent Wars

What we invent, we have the right to patent — which makes patenting one of the cornerstones of creativity, not to mention capitalism. But how does that apply to biological discoveries?

If you put in the sweat equity to isolate a gene, for example, is it yours?

On March 29, a federal judge said no, ruling that patents on two genes linked to ovarian and breast cancer — BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 — were illegal. Despite arguments that the very act of identifying the genes made them patentable, the judge determined that such claims of ownership were in violation of a "law of nature." Should the ruling withstand appeal, it could mean broader — and cheaper — access to tests that screen for the two genes, which are associated with about 10% of breast- and ovarian-cancer cases. Currently, the tests are pricey, costing up to $4,000 in the U.S.

The ruling could have implications beyond the BRCA genes, affecting patents on some 2,000 genes, or one-fifth of all human genes. The battle may not end until it reaches the Supreme Court.