Is it legal to patent a gene? The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says no, and it's taking the question to the Southern District Court of New York.
A testing company called Myriad Genetics holds a patent on several genes for breast cancer and ovarian cancer. The patent gives the company the exclusive right to test for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 cancer genes. Identifying those genes helps doctors estimate risk for women who have a family history of the disease and determine which treatments are appropriate for cancers after they are discovered. The company also retains the sole right to conduct experiments with the patented genes.
Biotech businesses argue that the potential for big profits through patents encourages companies to invest in genetic research. The ACLU replies that granting patents on genes "interferes with a person's right to know about his or her own genetic makeup" and keeps prices for genetic testing artificially high. But the organization's lawsuit would hardly eliminate every opportunity for profit: Even if the courts invalidate patents on genes themselves, Myriad Genetics' patent on its $3,000 gene scan, the BRACAnalysis test, will remain valid.