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A Win for Women: Myriad Genetics Cannot Patent Human Genes, Rules U.S. Supreme Court

Under current U.S. law corporations are people. For many, this remains an absurd ruling. But with today's rare unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has given us reason to hope that corporations will not be given unbridled ownership over nature itself.

While at first glance it may seem odd that the normally divided court are of one mind, it really does make sense; it combines the sanctity of life concerns of conservatives and progressive concerns over corporate overreach.

Make no mistake. Today's decision is a win for women. It will allow other companies to develop tests to detect breast and ovarian cancers -- tests at much lower cost than currently available with the one company that until now argued it had sole rights over the test because they held the patent. Today's ruling ends all that.

The US Supreme Court has ruled that human DNA cannot be patented by biotechnology corporations like Myriad Genetics that developed a test to identify mutations in genes that might increase the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad, based in Salt Lake City, argued that the genes they "isolated" constituted products of human ingenuity or invention and therefore belong to them and were patentable.

The ACLU argued against this construction insisting that genes are products of nature and cannot be patented under US laws.

Back in 2010 a New York federal court ruled in favour of the ACLU, but then an appeals court sided with Myriad. This set the stage for the Supreme Court to step in.

The majority decision written by Clarence Thomas appears to side with the ACLU: "Genes and the information they encode are not patent eligible... simply because they have been isolated from the surrounding genetic material."

In a concurring opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote: "the portion of the DNA isolated from its natural state sought to be patented is identical to that portion of the DNA in its natural state."

The court ruled that a synthetically produced genetic material made by scientists, known as cDNA, can be patented but that genes extracted from the human body, known as isolated DNA, cannot be patented.

Myriad is not alone in attempting to own nature's DNA. Universities and medical research firms have claimed intellectual property over human genes for nearly three decades. According to researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in the US, patents now cover some 40% of the human genome.

"Today, the court struck down a major barrier to patient care and medical innovation," said Sandra Park of the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "Myriad did not invent the BRCA genes and should not control them. Because of this ruling, patients will have greater access to genetic testing and scientists can engage in research on these genes without fear of being sued."