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 www.philly.com/fieldclinic. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.