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NEW YORK – Patents on genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer are invalid, ruled a New York federal court today. The precedent-setting ruling marks the first time a court has found patents on genes unlawful and calls into question the validity of patents now held on approximately 2,000 human genes. The ruling follows a lawsuit brought by a group of patients and scientists represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT), a not-for-profit organization affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
"Today's ruling is a victory for the free flow of ideas in scientific research," said Chris Hansen, a staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group. "The human genome, like the structure of blood, air or water, was discovered, not created. There is an endless amount of information on genes that begs for further discovery, and gene patents put up unacceptable barriers to the free exchange of ideas."
The ACLU's and PUBPAT's lawsuit against Myriad Genetics and the University of Utah Research Foundation, which hold the patents on the BRCA genes, as well the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), charged that the challenged patents are illegal and restrict both scientific research and patients' access to medical care, and that patents on human genes violate the First Amendment and patent law because genes are "products of nature."
The court today granted the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's (USPTO) request that it be released as a defendant in the lawsuit. The court found that it was unnecessary to reach the First Amendment claims against the USPTO because it had already ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit, Association for Molecular Pathology, et al. v. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, et al., was filed on May 12 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on behalf of breast cancer and women's health groups, individual women, geneticists and scientific associations representing approximately 150,000 researchers, pathologists and laboratory professionals.
Because the ACLU's lawsuit challenges the whole notion of gene patenting, its outcome could have far-reaching effects beyond the patents on the BRCA genes. Approximately 20 percent of all human genes are patented, including genes associated with Alzheimer's disease, muscular dystrophy, colon cancer, asthma and many other illnesses.
The court recognized the far-reaching impact of the case on medical research and public health. The opinion stated, "…the resolution of the issues presented to this Court deeply concerns breast cancer patients, medical professionals, researchers, caregivers, advocacy groups, existing gene patent holders and their investors, and those seeking to advance public health."
"The court correctly saw that companies should not be able to own the rights to a piece of the human genome," said Daniel B. Ravicher, Executive Director of PUBPAT and co-counsel in the lawsuit. "No one invented genes. Inventions are specific tests or drugs, which can be patented, but genes are not inventions."
The specific patents the ACLU had challenged are on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Mutations along the BRCA1 and 2 genes are responsible for most cases of hereditary breast and ovarian cancers. Many women with a history of breast and ovarian cancer in their families opt to undergo genetic testing to determine if they have the mutations on their BRCA genes that put them at increased risk for these diseases. This information is critical in helping these women decide on a plan of treatment or prevention, including increased surveillance or preventive mastectomies or ovary removal.
"We are extremely gratified by this groundbreaking decision," said Sandra Park, staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "This is the beginning of the end to patents that restrict women's access to their own genetic information and interfere with their medical care."
The patents granted to Myriad give the company the exclusive right to perform diagnostic tests on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and to prevent any researcher from even looking at the genes without first getting permission from Myriad. Myriad's monopoly on the BRCA genes makes it impossible for women to access alternate tests or get a comprehensive second opinion about their results and allows Myriad to charge a high rate for their tests.
Several major organizations, including the American Medical Association, the March of Dimes and the American Society for Human Genetics, filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the challenge to the patents on the BRCA genes.
Attorneys on the case include Hansen and Aden Fine of the ACLU First Amendment Working Group; Park and Lenora Lapidus of the ACLU Women's Rights Project; and Ravicher and Sabrina Hassan of PUBPAT.
Today's decision can be found online at:
More information about the case, including an ACLU video featuring breast cancer patients, plaintiff and supporter statements and declarations and the legal complaint, can be found online at: www.aclu.org/brca
You can join our Facebook group, Don’t Patent My Genes! Liberate the Breast Cancer Genes! to support and follow the ACLU’s efforts on this issue.