Wednesday, 19 June 2013 12:09

The Supreme Court’s Myriad Decision: Little or No Impact on Basic Research?

Written by  ASCB Post Staff
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Human chromosomes with multicolored labeling. Human chromosomes with multicolored labeling. Anna Jauch via the Cell Image Library.

In a rare unanimous decision last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "natural" genes cannot be patented in the closely watched case of Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. The outcome of the Myriad case will certainly improve the accessibility of genetic testing for BRCA mutations, which have been identified as significant risk factors for breast and ovarian cancers, but the Court also ruled that cDNA is eligible for patents because it is "not naturally occurring." A quick survey of researchers saw a mixture of good news/no news reactions in the Myriad case.

David Botstein of Princeton and a current member of the ASCB Council hailed the decision as "Good news for the research community. There's also good news for the biotechnology community." Botstein explained. "As I understand it, what the Supreme Court has done is to say that the extreme view—if you are the first one to cast eyes on a (genetic) sequence, you own it—is no longer tenable. But cDNAs can be patented. All of the biotechnology around making things is left intact."

The immediate impact in the lab will be minimal, said Timothy Rebbeck of the Basser Research Center for BRCA1&2, which is part of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Rebbick, who has been involved in BRCA research for 20 years, said "Research has not been unduly hampered by the patent" in the past yet he believes that there could be an indirect effect on future research as "more women will be getting testing and there will be a bigger spectrum of women to participate in [BRCA] research projects."

Other researchers see no change from Myriad. Michael Berns, co-founder and professor at the Beckman Laser Institute, University of California, Irvine and ASCB member, said, "I have checked with my lab and we do not feel the ruling will affect our ability to conduct our research."

However, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) issued a written statement declaring that, "The patents on the cDNA versions of BRCA1 and BRCA2 make important scientific tools unavailable to researchers and may slow progress in developing new tools for diagnosing heritable breast cancer." ASBMB also noted, "The BRCA1 and BRCA2 cDNAs are an obvious derivation of their respective mRNAs, do not represent novel inventions and should not be eligible for patent protection."

Botstein saw Myriad's greatest effect on personal genomics. "What it does for the genomic medicine folks is that it make it possible to have a test for many genes at the same time without having to pay royalties to a hundred different guys. That's an advance that will still leave most other biotechnologies intact."