Patentability of human genes in question

Crucial activity has been undergone regarding the patent case law when the US Supreme Court has heard arguments questioning whether the human genome can be claimed as intellectual property. This case is connected to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2009 that aims on the question whether companies should be able to patent genes. US authorities have been awarding patents on genes to universities and medical companies for almost 30 years. The case itself may have deep impact on future gene research.

According to researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in the US, patents now cover some 40% of the human genome. The ACLU and the Public Patent Foundation lawsuit relates to seven patents on two human genes held by US firm Myriad Genetics.

Myriad has developed a test to look for mutations in these genes that may increase the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Company`s arguments are that the genes patented were "isolated" by them, making them products of human ingenuity and therefore patentable. The ACLU rejects this argument, saying that genes are products of nature, and therefore can't be patented under US laws. The ACLU`s lawyer, Christopher Hansen, said: "Myriad did not invent the human genes at issue in this case, and they should not be allowed to patent them. The patent system was designed to encourage innovation, not stifle scientific research and the free exchange of ideas, which is what these patents do."

His co-counsel on the case, Daniel Ravicher, said granting patents on genes was "morally offensive". "Genes are the foundation of life, they are created by nature, not by man," he said.

New York federal court ruled in favour of the ACLU in 2010, but that was not the case with an appeals court that sided with Myriad in two separate occasions.

The Supreme Court rejected the appeal court's conclusions, and is now reconsidering the case. The Courts ruling that is expected in June may have significant repercussions for the US pharmaceuticals industry.

"Countless companies and investors have risked billions of dollars to research and develop scientific advances under the promise of strong patent protection," said Peter Meldrum, the president and chief executive of Myriad. Myriad said the materials and methods protected by the patents took years to develop.