WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that human genescannot be patented, a decision with both immediate benefits for somebreast and ovarian cancer patients and long-lasting repercussions forbiotechnology research.
The decision represents a victory forcancer patients, researchers and geneticists who claimed that a singlecompany's patent raised costs, restricted research and sometimes forcedwomen to have breasts or ovaries removed without sufficient facts orsecond opinions.
But the court held out a lifeline to MyriadGenetics, the company with an exclusive patent on the isolated form ofgenes that can foretell an increased genetic risk of cancer. Thejustices said it can patent a type of DNA that goes beyond extractingthe genes from the body.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote thedecision for a unanimous court. "Myriad did not create anything," Thomassaid. "To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, butseparating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an actof invention."
The compromise will not stop other scientists fromproviding genetic diagnostic testing now that the patent on the twogenes themselves has been lifted. That should lead to lower costs andgreater access.
"It is splendid news for patients, for physicians,for scientists and for common sense," Mary-Claire King, the geneticistwho in 1990 discovered the abnormality on chromosome 17 that proved tobe the so-called breast cancer gene, told USA TODAY. "The marketplacewill now be open."
"The court struck down a major barrier topatient care and medical innovation," said Sandra Park, senior staffattorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "Myriad did not inventthe BRCA genes and should not control them.
"Because of thisruling, patients will have greater access to genetic testing, andscientists can engage in research on these genes without fear of beingsued," Park said.
Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist who becamethe last remaining plaintiff in the case, heralded the decision as"thrilling" and said it would slash costs dramatically for breast andovarian cancer testing for women with a genetic risk, thereby making itmore available to lower-income women and those without quality healthinsurance.
"Ensuring equal access to genetic testing is one of the key aspects to this ruling," Ostrer said.
Thecomplex scientific case was perhaps the most important on the highcourt's calendar other than its more celebrated cases involving same-sexmarriage, voting rights and affirmative action.
And unlike thosecases, which are expected to divide the court sharply along ideologicallines, the controversial concept of gene patenting gave all ninejustices something to agree on.
The decision was based on pastpatent cases before the high court in which the justices ruled thatforces of nature, as opposed to products of invention, are notpatent-eligible.
Since 1984, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Officehas granted more than 40,000 patents tied to genetic material. Armedwith those patents, Myriad has tested more than 1 million women sincethe late 1990s for mutations that often lead to breast and ovariancancer.
Most women who want testing must pay its price - $3,340for the breast cancer analysis and $700 for an additional test thatpicks up a genetic link in about 10% of women who test negative thefirst time. Myriad officials say about 95% of its patients receiveinsurance coverage, often without co-payments, so that most patients payonly about $100.
Myriad and a broad array of industry tradegroups argued that without patent protection, research and developmentwould dry up. Doctors, geneticists, women's health groups and cancerpatients contended that competition would lower prices, improve outcomesand lead to more discoveries.
Karuna Jaggar, executive directorof Breast Cancer Action, hailed the decision as one that put "patients'health before corporate profits."
"This ruling makes a huge andimmediate difference for women with a known or suspected inherited riskof breast cancer," Jaggar said. "And it is a tremendous victory for allpeople everywhere. The Supreme Court has taken a significant stand tolimit the rights of companies to own human genes by striking downMyriad's monopoly."
The two sides had battled to a draw in lowercourts: A federal district court in New York sided with the patent'schallengers, while a divided court of appeals that handles patent casesruled for the company.
During oral argument in April, the courtwas presented with opposite interpretations of Myriad's contribution togenetic research. Christopher Hansen, the lawyer for the American CivilLiberties Union representing the patent's challengers, said Myriad hadinvented "nothing." Myriad's attorney, Gregory Castanias, said thecompany created "a new molecule that had never been known to the world."
Thejustices generally agreed that Myriad deserved credit for its processof isolating the gene and its use - but not for the gene itself. "Inisolation, it has no value," Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. "It's justnature sitting there."
Thomas' decision was slightly morediplomatic. "We merely hold that genes and the information they encodeare not patent-eligible ... simply because they have been isolated fromthe surrounding genetic material," he said.
But the compromisethat emerged Thursday was evident during that 65-minute debate. Severalof the more conservative justices said a complete denial of patentrights could jeopardize investments by other biotechnology companies -and that could limit progress on a range of research, from agricultureto the environment.