The US Supreme Court today ruled that Myriad, the US biotech company that holds a monopoly on testing for a set of breast-cancer related genes, can’t hold a patent on genetic material. But after the news broke, Myriad’s stock shot up.
The case involves a longstanding debate on the legality of Myriad’s patents onBRCA1 and BRCA2—genes associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer, recently spotlighted by carrier Angelina Jolie. And the ruling means that other biotech companies will now be allowed to pursue and market competing testing services. The American Civil Liberties Union has argued that this will drive down costs (right now, in the thousands of dollars per test) and increase testing availability. Myriad was understandably miffed at the notion of loosening its monopoly on testing for those genes.
But while the court ruled that a gene in its natural state is something that can’t be owned—even if it’s been isolated, which Myriad argued warranted a patent—it also ruled that complementary DNA, or cDNA, could be proprietary. Created artificially in the lab, the cDNA version of the BRCA genes lack so-called “junk” DNA, the pieces that don’t contribute to the gene’s production of proteins. This technical difference, according to the ruling, makes the genes unique enough to be distinguished legally from their natural cousins.