In June 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that naturally occurring DNA sequences (genes) could not be patented by private companies. The case for which this opinion was issued occurred between the Association For Molecular Pathology and Myriad Genetics, Inc., the latter of which had managed to pinpoint the location and sequence of two genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2); these genes, when mutated, are known to increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Had Myriad Genetics, Inc. been permitted to patent these genes, they would have obtained the authority to monopolize the detection and synthetic production of BRCA1 and BRCA2.
While the Supreme Court ruled against patenting naturally occurring genes because they are a product of nature rather than invention, a patent established for a non-naturally occurring gene was deemed acceptable.
Six years later, a new bill has been introduced that seeks to amend patent law in a way that may impact the legality of gene patents. Though the amendment is still being discussed and its explicit meaning and application are largely dependent on interpretation, it is possible that the bill suggests private companies could be able to patent genes and dominate areas of the medical field like cancer screening and treatment development.
Previous gene patenting cases, as well as this new development, bring into question the ethics and practicality of patenting something that naturally occurs in the human body. A ruling that permits gene patenting could permit “patent trolls” to acquire patents for the purpose of making a profit by manipulating other individuals and companies; this fear is especially evident among technology companies where these patent trolls acquire patents for concepts, applications, or materials that companies obviously need, and in order to obtain the rights to use these patented things, the patent owner demands a significant financial contribution. Another facet of patent trolls is that they claim patents only to make a profit rather than to make something new and beneficial themselves.
When it comes to gene patenting, the fear of medical companies and individuals alike is that patents will be established that limit the progress of medical research, particularly in regards to treatment options, abnormality detection, and cancer prevention. Another concern is that allowing patents for naturally-occurring genes challenges the notion of bodily autonomy and independence; patenting something that can form and exist in any human body certainly complicates these matters.
What will come of this new bill remains to be seen. The development is still in process. The decisions issued about this bill will surely affect the medical and technology industries as well as patent law as a whole.