June 13, 2013, 11:36 a.m. EDT
By Brent Kendall and Jess Bravin
WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — The Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that human genes isolated from the body can’t be patented, a victory for doctors and patients who argued that such patents interfere with scientific research and the practice of medicine.
The court was handing down one of its most significant rulings in the age of molecular medicine, deciding who may own the fundamental building blocks of life.
The case involved Myriad Genetics Inc. MYGN -1.69% , which holds patents related to two genes, known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, that can indicate whether a woman has a heightened risk of developing breast cancer or ovarian cancer.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court, said the genes Myriad isolated are products of nature, which aren’t eligible for patents.
The high court’s ruling was a win for a coalition of cancer patients, medical groups and geneticists who filed a lawsuit in 2009 challenging Myriad’s patents. Thanks to those patents, the Salt Lake City company has been the exclusive U.S. commercial provider of genetic tests for breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
Myriad said its patents were the result of significant financial investments that allowed the company to make breakthroughs in diagnosing a woman’s hereditary cancer risk. The company and its backers, including trade groups for the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, warned that disallowing patents like Myriad’s could deter financial investments for future medical innovations.
The Supreme Court’s ruling overturned a divided appeals court opinion that broadly allowed gene-related patents. Lower court judges noted the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had been granting patents on DNA sequences for 30 years.