US top court to rule if companies can patent genes

The US Supreme Court said Friday it would examine whether companies should be able to patent human genes they have isolated and identified, a decision that could have far-reaching implications for genetic research.

An appeals court in August authorized a biotechnology company, Myriad Genetics Inc, to patent two genes it found had links to breast and ovarian cancer -- women with the gene were at a much higher risk of developing the cancers.

These patents give Myriad the exclusive right to create and distribute commercial screenings for the two genes.

But a wide-ranging group of plaintiffs -- including molecular research teams, doctors, patients and the American Civil Liberties Union -- have asked the Supreme Court to invalidate the ruling.

They argue the decision to allow certain genes to be patented would slam the brakes on scientific research, as well as restrict access to care.

"DNA occurs naturally in the human body and cannot be patented by a single company that can then use its patents to limit scientific research and the free exchange of ideas," said Chris Hansen, lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, which filed an appeal.

Myriad maintains, however, that the discovery of the two genes, the product of research that typically requires years of effort and large investments, ought to be protected.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in March and render its decision in June.

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