Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 17
Supreme Court's gene patent ruling was overdue
It seems obvious that a company shouldn't hold a patent on something that the human body produces. Proprietary patents, after all, protect the exclusive rights to make, use or sell a creation or invention — not something that occurs in nature.
Yet some 30 years ago, the U.S. government started issuing human gene patents to companies that do biomedical research. But last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on what should have been apparent all these years. Justices rightly said that human genes cannot be "owned" or patented.
That's a victory for health care consumers. They will have more access to genetic and other tests at lower cost. And it's good for medical research, because scientists can conduct studies on genes without fear of being sued.
At the same time, the court ruled that companies can continue to patent a type of synthetic DNA that goes beyond simply isolating genes. The distinction can help companies protect their research and development investments.
The case involved a suit against Utah-based Myriad Genetics Inc., which was first to isolate the genes that have been linked to breast and ovarian cancer. Because of the patents Myriad held on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, it was the only company that could offer tests for them. American Civil Liberties Union lawyers brought the suit challenging that monopoly on behalf of doctors, researchers and cancer patients.
Fortunately for patients, the high court said that gene patents of this kind are not valid. In the court's unanimous decision, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote: "Myriad did not create anything. . . . 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."
Last month, BRCA1 and 2 testing received national attention when actress Angelina Jolie revealed that she had a preventive double mastectomy after testing positive for the gene. But because they hold gene patents, biotech firms like Myriad have had monopolies on some genetic tests and have controlled the prices for those tests. Breast and ovarian cancer screening can cost more than $3,000, and some insurers won't cover it for women with an average risk for the gene mutation. But now that the gene patent is invalid, other companies can offer the tests — often at much lower cost.
Though it was done for decades, it was never right for a company to have a monopoly over something created naturally by the human body. The court made a wise decision on behalf of millions who will benefit from more affordable, accessible medical tests and individually targeted treatments.
Rochester Post-Bulletin, June 14
Your business ruined, but you can't sue
Imagine that you are a farmer who grows certified organic corn and soybeans, which are fed to milk cows to produce organic milk that's sold to grocery stores and farmers markets. It's a labor-intensive enterprise that offers profits and non-monetary rewards from knowing that you are producing food for a specific segment of the population.
Disaster strikes when the genetically modified grain grown in a neighbor's field cross-contaminates your crop. The market you depend on is lost and your reputation sullied. The cross-contamination was accidental — GMO seed was carried from one field to the next by birds, rodents or insects.
What is your legal recourse?
There is none.
Monsanto, the multinational corporation that owns patents on GMO products, has been aggressive in protecting its seed patent rights. It has sued several farmers who planted their seeds without permission. Since your crop contains GMO genes, they could sue you for accidentally using their technology without permission.
The issue of accidental GMO contamination motivated a group of organic farmers, non-GMO users and seed suppliers to bring a lawsuit against Monsanto in New York court. The plaintiffs lost the case and appealed to the three-person Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The judges ruled that the plaintiffs had no right to sue.
The reasoning the judges used to make their decision is a head-scratcher. The judges ruled the plaintiffs can't file suit against Monsanto over possible GMO contamination "because Monsanto has made binding assurances that it will not take legal action against growers whose crops might inadvertently contain traces of Monsanto biotech genes."