Medical groups assail patenting of human genes


About 20% of the human genome has been patented, including:

Gene: HFE
Role: Mutation causes haemochromatosis, an overabsorption of iron.

Gene: ASPA
Role: Mutation causes Canavan disease through degeneration of nerve fiber insulation.

Gene: BMP7
Role: Creates bone

Gene: CDKN2A
Role: Mutation can increase risk of skin cancer

Gene: LEPR
Role: Variations may be associated with obesity

Source: USA TODAY research

By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

In a case that could have far-reaching implications for medical research and health care based on genetics, groups representing thousands of doctors, scientists and patients went to court Tuesday to argue that no one should be able to patent human genes, a question that has long been controversial in scientific circles.

The case involves a Utah company, Myriad Genetics, and the University of Utah Research Foundation, which in 1994 isolated the DNA sequence for the BRCA1 and later the BRCA2 genes, mutations of which can greatly increase a woman’s chance of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad sells a test for the genes.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation, a not-for-profit organization affiliated with Cardozo School of Law in New York, argued before federal district court Judge Robert Sweet that patents on genes are unconstitutional.

The U.S. Patent Office allows genes to be patented as soon as someone isolates the DNA by removing it from the cell, says ACLU attorney Sandra Park. “We’re arguing that isolating it does not make it patentable. It’s a natural phenomenon, and the Supreme Court has always said natural phenomena are not patentable.”

The suit also argues that because every human has these genes, the patents infringe on First Amendment rights of freedom of scientific inquiry and the free exchange of ideas, as well as undermining bodily integrity and a person’s right to know about his or her genetic makeup.

The suit is supported by groups such as…

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