On Thursday, the US Supreme Court ruled that human genes may not be patented, as “a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated”. It would seem obvious that the human genome is not something that any person, firm or university could ever claim to have invented, yet the past three decades have seen enormous controversy over patents being granted for the discovery of parts of the genome, leading to a monopoly over the research and application of potential uses for the patent holder; research that, with certain genes, desperately needs to be undertaken, in order for diagnostic testing to occur, which could prevent or cure genetic diseases, such as some cancers caused by (until recently) patented genes.
What is confusing about the whole issue is that the Supreme Court has never come to this conclusion before, regarding gene patenting. Unfortunately the final ruling is still more of a compromise, as synthetically created versions of genetic material are still eligible to be patented. Overall it seems to be astonishing that, despite years of calls for the courts to realise that the law was being followed inaccurately and immorally, that they have only done something about it now.
Only now are the dangers seemingly being appreciated. Author Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame) writes in Next (the last book before his death in 2008) how genes are “facts of nature… the patent consists of pure information” so patenting of them is as ridiculous as “allowing somebody to patent noses” a patent which would’ve stopped the invention of “Kleenex, nasal sprays, masks, make-up and perfume”; would not allow you to put sun cream on your nose, as this is a modification of the nose, and so on. A gene patent leads to an all-out ban on everything to do with the gene; completely different from the vast majority of granted patents. Despite the absurdity, it’s obvious now that common sense is finally prevailing and that the first steps of altering the laws and establishing clearer guidelines are being taken at last. Whether this will eventually stop research being effectively banned, or other of Crichton’s views such as gene testing data being made public and human tissue remaining your property after being removed from your body, is certainly unclear.