Patenting genes and gene sequences: Analysis of public health implications and the law

Mariann Crapanzano, The University of Texas School of Public Health


At issue is whether or not isolated DNA is patent eligible under the U.S. Patent Law and the implications of that determination on public health. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has issued patents on DNA since the 1980s, and scientists and researchers have proceeded under that milieu since that time. Today, genetic research and testing related to the human breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 is conducted within the framework of seven patents that were issued to Myriad Genetics and the University of Utah Research Foundation between 1997 and 2000. In 2009, suit was filed on behalf of multiple researchers, professional associations and others to invalidate fifteen of the claims underlying those patents. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears patent cases, has invalidated claims for analyzing and comparing isolated DNA but has upheld claims to isolated DNA. The specific issue of whether isolated DNA is patent eligible is now before the Supreme Court, which is expected to decide the case by year's end. In this work, a systematic review was performed to determine the effects of DNA patents on various stakeholders and, ultimately, on public health; and to provide a legal analysis of the patent eligibility of isolated DNA and the likely outcome of the Supreme Court's decision. A literature review was conducted to: first, identify principle stakeholders with an interest in patent eligibility of the isolated DNA sequences BRCA1 and BRCA2; and second, determine the effect of the case on those stakeholders. Published reports that addressed gene patents, the Myriad litigation, and implications of gene patents on stakeholders were included. Next, an in-depth legal analysis of the patent eligibility of isolated DNA and methods for analyzing it was performed pursuant to accepted methods of legal research and analysis based on legal briefs, federal law and jurisprudence, scholarly works and standard practice legal analysis. Biotechnology, biomedical and clinical research, access to health care, and personalized medicine were identified as the principle stakeholders and interests herein. Many experts believe that the patent eligibility of isolated DNA will not greatly affect the biotechnology industry insofar as genetic testing is concerned; unlike for therapeutics, genetic testing does not require tremendous resources or lead time. The actual impact on biomedical researchers is uncertain, with greater impact expected for researchers whose work is intended for commercial purposes (versus basic science). The impact on access to health care has been surprisingly difficult to assess; while invalidating gene patents might be expected to decrease the cost of genetic testing and improve access to more laboratories and physicians' offices that provide the test, a 2010 study on the actual impact was inconclusive. As for personalized medicine, many experts believe that the availability of personalized medicine is ultimately a public policy issue for Congress, not the courts. Based on the legal analysis performed in this work, this writer believes the Supreme Court is likely to invalidate patents on isolated DNA whose sequences are found in nature, because these gene sequences are a basic tool of scientific and technologic work and patents on isolated DNA would unduly inhibit their future use. Patents on complementary DNA (cDNA) are expected to stand, however, based on the human intervention required to craft cDNA and the product's distinction from the DNA found in nature. In the end, the solution as to how to address gene patents may lie not in jurisprudence but in a fundamental change in business practices to provide expanded licenses to better address the interests of the several stakeholders.

Subject Area

Law|Public health

Recommended Citation

Crapanzano, Mariann, "Patenting genes and gene sequences: Analysis of public health implications and the law" (2013). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI1544258.