Another gene-patent issue: Who owns information derived?

Posted: April 17, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court hearing Monday on whether human genes can be patented cuts to the heart of law, science, and even philosophy: Should a firm have exclusive rights to use the genetic code in your cells?

Patients, researchers, and the life-sciences industry all have much at stake.

But beneath the dispute lies an issue that may be more important in the long run. Who should own the aggregated information that companies compile with gene patents? The issue was not raised in the hour-long hearing Monday before the court, but it's critical.

Defendant Myriad Genetics Inc. has used its patents on two breast-cancer genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, to block anyone else from testing for them. As sole test provider, it has built a database with results from thousands of women.

This resource holds the key to deciphering the meaning of mutations in the genes, of which there are dozens. When testing reveals a mutation, Myriad can search for outcomes in every other patient who has it.

But it keeps the database to itself. If Myriad does not analyze a mutation, it won't be analyzed.

Gene patents allow firms like Myriad to compile this information, but only they can use it to better inform patients of their cancer risks and develop the personalized treatments of tomorrow. That may be more important than the monopolies the patents grant for the tests.

This means that in ruling on gene patents, the court may also set the course for the information revolution in medicine - whether the justices realize it or not.

Field, a Drexel law and public health professor, writes the Field Clinic at His e-mail is

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