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article imageOp-Ed: The patent gene debate: who owns your genes?

By Tim Sandle     Sep 13, 2014 in Science
The Federal Court of Australia has rejected an appeal of a ruling that allows companies to patent isolated human genes. This reignites the debate: who owns your genes - you or the company that extracts them?
The Federal Court of Australia has upheld an earlier decision in favor of the U.S. company Myriad Genetics. The genetics testing company holds a patent on naturally occurring mutations in the BRCA1 gene. The associated test can predict a woman’s risk for certain types of breast or ovarian cancer.
The Australian court, as New Scientist reported, has denied an appeal by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the patient advocacy group Cancer Voices Australia and Yvonne D’Arcy, a breast cancer survivor, over ownership of the gene.
It is the view of the court that the process of isolating a human gene creates an “artificial state of affairs” that may be protected by a patent. In essence: isolated DNA is materially distinct from the DNA in the human body. This means that if someone has a unique genetic property, of interest to corporate pharma, and that splice of genetic information is extracted, then the company that does so can exploit and profit from the acquired information.
In the words of the court: “The chemical and physical makeup of the isolated nucleic acid renders it not only artificial but also different from its natural counterpart.”
In the U.S., a slightly different legal decision holds. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a case that also involved Myriad Genetics and the BRCA1 gene, invalidated patents on the isolation of human genes in June 2013, but held that synthetic genes, including complementary DNA (cDNA), may be patented.
With this case, Supreme Court observer Lyle Denniston, on his SCOTUS blog, explained why this is a thorny legal issue:
“No one on the court was in doubt that Myriad would have been entitled to a patent if it found some unique way to make use of the genes it has isolated, but the justices drew a sharp distinction between creative applications and the core natural item, the gene itself. But [the] Myriad case in some ways involves a patent that sort of straddles the two.”
These issues, and contrasting legal opinions, open up an interesting debate: who owns your genes? According to one analysis, through more than 40,000 patents on DNA molecules, companies have essentially claimed the entire human genome for profit.
If you have a view, please use the comments section below.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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