A Preliminary Victory

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Opponents of gene patenting have a reason to cheer. Federal judge Robert W. Sweet ruled on Monday to invalidate seven patents held by Myriad Genetics related to BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Mutations in these genes are associated with increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer and, until now, only Myriad could test for them (and at $3,000 a pop).

Why? Once a gene is patented by a company, that company owns the intellectual rights to it. This allows them to limit the research that can be done on the gene by other researchers (for potential therapeutics, for example) and control any related genetic tests.

With this in mind, there are a number of reasons, in my opinion, to be excited about this decision. They range from the very practical-- Myriad can no longer monopolize the BRCA test, which may eventually lower its price and make the test more accessible to women-- to philosophical-- our DNA, the genetic information that makes us who were are, shouldn't be patentable.

However, it isn't all smooth sailing from here. If this decision is upheld (it's almost guaranteed to be appealed), what happens to the other genes (about 20%) that have been patented? How does this affect the future of genetics research as a whole? Some argue that, without patents and the restrictions they bring, research can be done more quickly, more creatively, and more collaboratively, leading to more progress. Others say that this ruling will make genetics research less attractive, especially to private investors looking to make a profit, therefore limiting funding and progress. And there's the issue of rewarding investigators for their game-changing discoveries.

When it comes to choosing a side, I'm pulling for a more open research arena. After all, should genetic information really be owned by anyone? Please, share your thoughts.

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Comments

Personally, I think both our patent and copyright system here in the US needs some work. It is amazing that someone can patent a gene, only to prevent people from researching it, all to often while they promote their own "Cure." It is very saddening how the pharmaceutical industry can often be more about bottom lines and profits, rather than finding a cure. So, I think this is an important first step and firmly believe that research should be open, without having to worry about someone patenting nature.

I agree with your stance that open research will be more beneficial to the field than private research in the long run. Now that it has been established that purified sequences of DNA cannot be patented, hopefully an open market will spur competition among biotech companies to use the readily accessible sequences to develop targeted drugs and therapies more quickly. To address the issue of promoting genetics research, maybe companies or individuals that take the initiative to actually sequence and purify the DNA (like Myriad) could be recognized for their efforts in the form of research grants?

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