Two recent unanimous Supreme Court decisions delved into cutting-edge genetic research and patent protection. Both decisions will ensure more creative and advanced research that will better society.
In one case, the court ruled that Myriad Genetics Inc. could not claim a patent on genes in the human body. In the other case, the court ruled that agribusiness giant Monsanto did have the right to patent its genetically modified soybean.
Myriad had isolated two gene mutations which greatly increase a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer. What they didn’t do is create or alter any of the genetic information in the mutations. Still, the company acquired a patent on the genes, allowing it to block other companies from offering diagnostic tests unless they paid Myriad substantial licensing fees. The result was cancer screening tests that could have cost as little as hundreds of dollars being done at a cost of $3,000 per test.
The justices ruled that no one has the right to patent naturally occurring things. “Groundbreaking, innovative or even brilliant discovery does not by itself” warrant patent protection, wrote Justice Clarence Thomas.
The decision will produce a flurry of competition among public and private-company researchers to develop more and cheaper genetic tests for a variety of diseases. And companies will still have the ability to make substantial money for their research simply by virtue of being the first to discover and market it.
While the Monsanto case also involved genetics and patents, the issue was clearly different. It arrived at the high court after Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman appealed a lower court verdict against him.
In the past, soybean fields could not be sprayed with herbicide because it would kill the soybeans as well as weeds. But Monsanto genetically engineered soybeans that resist herbicide, allowing farmers to keep their fields weed free without having to pull the weeds by hand.