Patents seem to exist for just about any strange thing your mind can imagine, from snake collars and leashes to an old-person-scented doll. We can agree that although some of these American patents are bizarre, what was an even crazier was the decade-old practice of patenting DNA. Thankfully, the Supreme Court just ruled that natural human genes cannot be patented, a decision that will be most beneficial for cancer patients and researchers.
Myriad Genetics has patented the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, the two that signal a predisposition to ovarian and breast cancer if mutated. What this means is that if a patient gets blood work done, the doctor legally cannot extract and test the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes to examine them for mutations. Rather, if a patient wishes to have his or her DNA tested for these life-threatening mutations, he or she must use the services offered by Myriad Genetics and pay a fee of $3,120 — a fee that is not covered by Medicaid in 24 states and would additionally pose a financial burden for those without health insurance.
Patenting these DNA strands is troublesome for several reasons. For one, it evidently limits patients who have no form of health care coverage or the financial means to get tested from better seeking preventive treatment. Second, it makes human genes into some sort of twisted biological business that I (personally, at least) have no interest in being part of. Gene patents have actually been issued out so frequently that now gene patent holders collectively own 20% of our genes. That's right — we do not own 20%of our own genetic makeup. The question we should be asking here is, How in the world did the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and these companies get away with handing out and receiving gene patents for so long and to such an overwhelming extent?
Finally, patents are necessary to protect and assert rights to one’s creative property. Are these gene patent holders the creators of our natural biology? Of course not, and since they are not, they had no business claiming rights to our genes as though we are somehow their creative or intellectual property.
The Supreme Court, however, will still allow patents on lab-created synthetic DNA which makes much more sense to claim as creative inventions. Now that Myriad Genetics no longer has claims over the BRCA genes, we will hopefully see further advances in breast and ovarian cancer research and ultimately a better future for patients affected with BRCA mutations.