Houston Experts Say Gene Patent Ruling A 'Win' For Cancer Patients

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gene patents could have a big impact on cancer treatment. Cancer researchers at MD Anderson — and local experts in biotechnology — have praised the decision.

With genetic technology racing ahead of legal precedent, many felt it was high time for the Supreme Court to weigh in.

The case concerned Myriad, the company that offered a test for BRCA1 and 2.

Mutations in those genes can indicate an increased risk of breast or ovarian cancer.

Sapna Kumar is a professor at the University of Houston Law school and an expert on patent law. She says the problem is that Myriad had patented the genes themselves.

“Here we see the court really putting its foot down and saying, 'Look, just because you isolate the sequence into a Petri dish doesn’t make it intrinsically different from what is in our bodies.' ’’

Myriad essentially had a monopoly on the genes, and therefore no other laboratory could run that test for a woman without the company’s permission.

That made the test very expensive in some cases.

Kumar says she now expects other companies to jump in with competing tests, and prices will drop.

“Now we’re going to see people having a lot more information in making major medical decisions. People are going to have more access to genetic testing, and overall I think this is a big win for patients.”

Dr. Gordon Mills studies female cancers at MD Anderson.

He has even collaborated with Myriad on research papers. He also shares a patent with the company on a different genetic test that has yet to be released.  

Mills concedes that the ruling means Myriad lost a lucrative monopoly on this particular test. But he thinks the company — and other biotech companies — will still have plenty of opportunities to make money.

“The Supreme Court attempted to put a very good balance in place, that says a natural product, which is the human gene, is not in and of itself patentable. However, if you derive something that is not naturally occurring from that gene — it could be a product of that gene, or knowledge around that gene, such as the way you would perform the test — that was left patentable.”

But this probably isn’t the last we’ll hear on the issue.

Kumar says biotech companies could lobby Congress to change U.S. patent law, and make it legal once again to patent genes.

And Miller says the implications of the ruling for certain pharmaceuticals, such as ones derived from animal DNA, remain to be seen. 

Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...