Supreme Court Skeptical of Patents for Human DNA in 'Jewish' Gene Case

Sharp Questions for Company Over BRCA Mutation

By Reuters

Published April 15, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Supreme Court justices on Monday raised tough questions about patents on human genes held by Myriad Genetics Inc.

The nine justices signaled reluctance to issue a broad ruling, indicating that some were looking for a compromise that might distinguish between types of genetic material.

The biotechnology industry warns that a broad ruling against Myriad could threaten billions of dollars of investment.

A group of medical researchers, associations and patients say human genes, including synthetically produced material, should not be patented. They sued in 2009, challenging seven patents owned by or licensed to Myriad on two human genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer. A federal judge said the patents were invalid. An appeals court overruled that decision, and the case landed at the Supreme Court.

Several justices, including Justice Sonia Sotomayor, signaled on Monday that they did not think that the simple process of isolating and removing human genes should be patented. But others, such as Justice Elena Kagan, indicated concerns about the impact a broad ruling could have on companies that invest in such research.

Justice Samuel Alito appeared most concerned about the court issuing a sweeping ruling on what he described as a “very difficult” question.

“Why should we do that?” he asked.

The Obama administration, which intervened in the case in support of neither side, has urged a compromise position, which several justices probed during the hour-long argument.

Government lawyers say that “synthesized genetic materials” can be patented because they are human-made inventions. But simply removing, or isolating, human DNA does not substantively change it and so it should not be eligible for a patent, the administration says.

If the court were to adopt that approach, which neither the plaintiffs nor Myriad accept, some of Myriad’s patents, concerning synthetic molecules called cDNA, could survive, although the parties disagree on that point as well.

A number of justices indicated concerns about whether Myriad should be awarded patents merely for isolating a gene. A majority appeared inclined to find that cDNA could be patented.

Emphasizing the need to tread carefully, Justice Stephen Breyer noted that patent law often involves “uneasy compromises.”

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted patents on at least 4,000 human genes to companies, universities and others that have discovered and decoded them.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.