Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Keep your hands outa my genes

Judge Invalidates Human Gene Patent
A federal judge on Monday struck down patents on two genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer. The decision, if upheld, could throw into doubt the patents covering thousands of human genes and reshape the law of intellectual property.

In fact, many in the patent field had predicted the courts would throw out the suit.

Judge Sweet, however, ruled that the patents were “improperly granted” because they involved a “law of nature.” He said that many critics of gene patents considered the idea that isolating a gene made it patentable “a ‘lawyer’s trick’ that circumvents the prohibition on the direct patenting of the DNA in our bodies but which, in practice, reaches the same result.”

The case could have far-reaching implications. About 20 percent of human genes have been patented, and multibillion-dollar industries have been built atop the intellectual property rights that the patents grant.

“If a decision like this were upheld, it would have a pretty significant impact on the future of medicine,” said Kenneth Chahine, a visiting law professor at the University of Utah who filed an amicus brief on the side of Myriad. He said that medicine was becoming more personalized, with genetic tests used not only to diagnose diseases but to determine which medicine was best for which patient.

Mr. Chahine, who once ran a biotechnology company, said the decision could also make it harder for young companies to raise money from investors. “The industry is going to have to get more creative about how to retain exclusivity and attract capital in the face of potentially weaker patent protection,” he said.

Edward Reines, a patent lawyer who represents biotechnology firms but was not involved in the case, said loss of patent protection could diminish the incentives for genetic research.

Chris Hansen, an A.C.L.U. staff lawyer, said: “The human genome, like the structure of blood, air or water, was discovered, not created. There is an endless amount of information on genes that begs for further discovery, and gene patents put up unacceptable barriers to the free exchange of ideas.”

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