Patients' Joy Over Supreme Court Decision On Gene Patents

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Catherine Corman (courtesy)
Catherine Corman (courtesy)

By Cathy Corman
Guest Contributor

My inbox and voicemail were filled with gleeful messages from colleagues, friends, and family Thursday afternoon. My beloved friend Martha put it just right when she called me from Connecticut: "I'm happy for you, and me, too, and everyone else!"

In what may be the single most popular opinion of his Supreme Court career, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the unanimous decision, released Thursday, that liberates scientists to perform research on and design tests for BRCA 1 and 2. These are the genetic mutations linked to an elevated risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.

Some of us belong to families where grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and sisters don't survive into middle age because they develop breast and ovarian cancer. Up until today, the only way we could find out if we'd be likely to share the fate of our doomed relatives was to give our cells to one company — Myriad Genetics.

Myriad claimed its patent prevented any other entity from providing this service, and it set the cost for testing so high that low-income, uninsured, and underinsured women weren't able to unlock the riddle of their fate.  In addition, it made research into effective cures impossible.

In his decision, Justice Thomas explained that the Court had reasoned that Myriad can't hold a patent on "naturally occurring phenomena." Myriad didn't invent the mutations. It didn't even invent the process for removing the DNA from human cells. The company therefore can't prevent others from sequencing or studying these mutations. (Here's a good explanation of the case in layperson’s terms.)

There is concern among business experts that entrepreneurs in biotech fields will be less willing to invest time and money into research if they can't patent their discoveries. I don't believe it. If competition plays a role in market expansion, then I think — like my friend Martha — that we all have reason to be happy.

I am optimistic this evening that my kids will have better options than I do when they face the results of their own testing. I cherish hope that the Supreme Court's decision guarantees that I will belong to the very last generation whose best option for survival is the loss of healthy ovaries and breasts.

Cathy Corman is a writer and multimedia producer who teaches American Studies at Umass Boston and keeps an occasional blog, “Bowl o’ Cherries.” She wrote previously about the Myriad patent issue here.

This program aired on June 14, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.