Myriad Genetics patent ruling

The US Supreme Court has ruled that Myriad Genetics can't keep their BRCA gene patents. What are the implications?
07 July 2013

Interview with 

Nell Barrie


Kat - And so, a big news story that we touched on in last month's podcast was the expected patent ruling on Myriad Genetics about their patterns on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. We were still waiting for a result last month but it's come through. The US Supreme Court has apparently judged that they cannot hold the patents on these genes. They are a work of nature and can't be patented. So, this is broadly good news, yeah?

Nell - Yeah, definitely and I think it's one of those things where people have talked about this for a while and I think to most people who know a little bit about genes, it's always seemed kind of ridiculous that anyone would be allowed to patent something like a gene because it's like saying, I've got a patent on a cat, or if that bird flying there, that's my design and it just seems completely not like a normal kind of patent. So, it's expected but it was almost like, "why did that happen in the first place?" It's a bit strange that that was allowed to happen.

Kat - There were some things that the court said that Myriad could keep. What were they?

Judith - Yeah, so this is about cDNA which is a copy of the DNA. So essentially, if you make an artificial copy of this gene, because you created that in a lab and it hasn't been created by nature, so that cDNA, you can still have a patent on that, is what the Supreme Court said.

Kat - And cDNAs, because they're kind of the gene, but with the bits that aren't important chopped out. I think that's probably quite good for the biotech industry because a lot of the stuff that biotech does is based around these cDNAs,the interesting gene bits. The other thing I noticed was that the supreme court said that Myriad can keep hold of their database too.

Nell - Yeah, this is interesting because I mean, there's so much data out there now around looking at the genetics of different patients, looking at genetics of different diseases and we're increasingly seeing that people want to share, there's much more they want to be able to use everybody else's data for their own research. In a way, that might seem like a bit of a shame, but Myriad certainly would argue that that's where they've invested their money essentially. They put a lot of money into developing the tests that they've made. If we were to say we have to share all these stuff and you can't have patents on anything, there'd be a lot of arguments about how the biotech industry would carry on, where can you get money for investment if you can't make any commercial gain out of it at all? So, in one sense, you could say that this is kind of measured compromise I suppose, but it'll be interesting to see how it all affects genetic testing in the future.

Kat - Myriad have said that they've been doing around 250,000 BRCA tests every year and it has cost around $4,000 and this is just in the US. The situation in the UK and other countries is different. But now, it basically flings open the door for anyone to do genetic sequencing for these genes. So, that's also a hugely good thing.

Nell - Yeah and I mean, I think a lot of people would argue that that's great because you get the competition, you'll get some more innovation around what types of different test companies might come up with. They can improve them in different ways and the other really exciting thing is you can add them to panel tests now because previously, because these tests were patented, you couldn't have them as part of a panel for wider different mutations.

Kat - Which is ridiculous because they're the two key genes involved in breast cancer risk.

Nell - Yeah, exactly and there's also now a lot of big studies happening around the world, looking at different kinds of panel tests, not just for one specific type of cancer, but for genes relating to several different types of cancer in one go. So, it'll be great if we can get to a point where we can sort of share more of this and have a bit more collaboration across all these research efforts and hopefully, this type of ruling will help that to happen better.


Add a comment