WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of human gene patenting not only affirms an important ethical truth but opens the door to potential advances in medical research, supporters of the decision say.
The high court’s nine members unanimously ruled that human genes cannot be patented in a June 13 decision overturning patents already granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In an opinion written by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, the court stated, “[A] naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated” by a biotechnology firm.
Commenting on the ruling, Southern Baptist ethicist Russell D. Moore said the high court “was right. Human beings didn’t create genes, and they cannot patent them.”
“God gave humanity dominion as servant stewards over the natural order, but He didn’t give humanity dominion over humanity,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). “The wild mystery of our genetic code is one more reminder that we are creatures, not gods.”
Bioethics expert David Prentice also applauded the justices’ decision.
“That the Patent Office approved patents on our genes is a profoundly disturbing idea, as is the idea that someone else can own parts of your body, especially your genetics. The Supreme Court has resoundingly denied this idea,” said Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at Family Research Council.
Myriad Genetics Inc., based in Salt Lake City, uncovered the location and order of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and received patents as a result of those discoveries. Mutations of those genes can greatly increase the chances of breast and ovarian cancer.
The site and sequence of those genes “existed in nature before Myriad found them,” Thomas wrote.
Myriad “did not create anything,” Thomas noted. “To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention.”
While the Supreme Court rejected patenting of naturally occurring DNA, it upheld patents of synthetically created, or complementary, DNA (cDNA). cDNA may be patented “because it is not naturally occurring,” Thomas wrote.
The two–fold ruling – rejecting patents for DNA and supporting patents for cDNA – will provide options for cancer patients and should benefit research, observers said.
“Patents generally encourage research and innovation,” Prentice said in a written statement. “However, the patents on normal DNA sequences have led to limits on research to develop diagnostic tests and treatments, and thus have also greatly increased the cost for tests under an exclusive license. This decision opens the field for more research and development to occur in genetics.”
The court’s ruling on cDNA “could stimulate innovation in genetic research,” he also said.
Jeremy Lazarus, president of the American Medical Association, described the justices’ opinion as “a clear victory for patients that will expand medical discovery and preserve access to innovative diagnosis and treatment options.”
The ERLC joined in a friend-of-the-court brief urging the high court to overturn gene patenting. The brief said, “The person should not be treated as a commodity for sale to the highest bidder, and property must be recognized in a way that respects all of the members of society.” The ERLC signed on to the brief with Brian Scarnecchia, president of the International Solidarity and Human Rights Institute.
The Supreme Court’s opinion reversed the ruling by the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals regarding patenting of naturally occurring DNA and upheld that panel’s decision regarding synthetically created DNA.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)