The Supreme Court Unanimously Rules Your Genes Cannot Be Patented

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide
  • You were born with them.  You got them from your parents.  Genes determine your eye color, your height, and your risk for certain diseases.  How could anyone else own your genes?


    Thursday, June 13, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that genes cannot be patented. To most laypeople, this seems obvious, but Myriad Genetics disagreed.  They said that because they developed a test to check to see whether people carried a mutation on their BRCA genes that put them at higher risk for cancer, they could patent not only their test, but the gene as well.


    This test recently made news when actress Angelina Jolie decided to have a double mastectomy because the test showed that she was at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer.  Every day, women whose mothers, aunts, and sisters developed breast or ovarian breast cancer at a young age wonder whether they carry the mutation on the BRCA gene that would mean the odds are that they will also get breast cancer.  Young women with breast cancer want to know if that genetic mutation caused their cancer so that they can estimate their children’s risk.  

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    Many go for genetic counseling and decide to have the test that Myriad Genetics developed.  People who have a high risk have decisions to make, and organizations like Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE) can help them.  The test also can reduce people’s worry if they find out that they do not carry the BRCA mutations.  Of course, they can still get breast cancer.  The vast majority of breast cancers do not have a known genetic component.  So the test is helpful in many ways.  Unfortunately, for many people the test was too expensive.  Because Myriad Genetics held a patent, no other company could provide a competing test.  

    And because of Myriad Genetics’ patent on the genes that are in every human beings’ body, scientists could not do the research they wished on the genes.


    In 2009 groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, scientists, and patient advocates sued Myriad Genetics saying that human genes cannot be patented, and now the Supreme Court has passed its ruling.  Naturally occurring genes cannot be patented.  Genes developed in a laboratory called complementary DNA can be patented as can special techniques a laboratory might develop to work with genetic material. 


    However, the techniques used by Myriad Genetics in their test for the BRCA mutations are well known.  Several labs are ready to go with their own versions of the test.


    In a blog Dr. Susan Love, breast cancer expert and one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said, “Today’s decision will have far-reaching effects—not only on breast cancer research and treatment but on research into all hereditary diseases. Because of the Supreme Court’s decision, other companies and laboratories can now compete to provide testing, improving the quality of the test as well as reducing the price. In addition, scientists can now do research on all genes and their mutations without fear of being sued. This means we will have a much better chance of identifying other mutations in genes that increase breast cancer risk. It also means that researchers studying other types of cancers and other diseases will not be restricted as to what tests they can do and how they can do them.


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    “Indeed, today’s decision is a victory for people and their doctors throughout the country and all the lawyers, doctors, supporters and advocates who fought against a company’s right to patent, and profit from, a genetic mutation—and indeed there were many of us. Most of all it is a victory for all of us interested in understanding the cause of breast cancer.”


    You were born with them, and now the Supreme Court has spoken in a 9-0 decision.  Your genes cannot be patented.  If you have wanted to have genetic testing done but couldn’t afford it, you can go back to your doctor in a few weeks when she has had time to absorb this new information and ask again whether it might be right for you.


    Azvolinsky, Anna.  “Supreme Court Ruling Invalidates Myriad’s BRCA Gene Patents.” Cancer Network.  14 June 2013.  Accessed 15 June 2013 from

    Love, Susan. “A Triumph for Women and Advocacy.” Act with Love Blog..  13 June 2013.  Accessed 15 June from

Published On: June 15, 2013