Midday Report: Supreme Court Considers Patents on Human Genes

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The Supreme Court hears a case with broad implications for scientific research, corporate profits and your health.

The question before the Court today is whether a company can claim human DNA as intellectual property. If this is allowed, companies would be able to get patents on their "property" and keep it out of the hands of anyone else.

The U.S. Patent Office has granted thousands of patents on human genes over the years to companies in biotechnology, agriculture, microbiology and other fields.

This case involves Myriad Genetics and its patent on two specific genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer. It has been working its way through the courts for four years. A federal judge invalidated the patents in 2009, but two appeals courts overturned that ruling.

Opponents of the patent – including the American Medical Association, the March of Dimes, and the Obama administration – claim that it limits scientific research. And they say the patents hurt patients trying to make critical decisions about their health.

They also argue that companies should not be able to get a patent on naturally occurring genes in the human body.

But the biotech and drug industries, including leading firms such as Amgen (AMGN) and Genentech, say the patents encourage further research into genetics, which leads to the advent of life-saving drugs and treatments.

Myriad's current patent gives it a monopoly on testing for genetic mutations involving these two key genes. That test costs patients more than $3,300 dollars.

About 80 percent of Myriad's revenue comes from these patents.

The Supreme Court does not necessarily have to make a black-or-white ruling that gives one side a complete victory. It could find that drugs or crops based on genetic research might deserve legal protection, without being able to patent the gene itself.

That would differentiate human DNA as a product of nature from the steps the companies take to produce drugs based on their research.

The court's decision could have an impact on everything from testing for leukemia and Alzheimer's to hearing loss and heart disease.

Either way, billions of dollars and millions of lives could be at stake.

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Midday Report: Supreme Court Considers Patents on Human Genes

Nearly 30 percent of Americans bought more natural foods in 2011 than the year before, according to a Rodale study. But what are we really paying more for?

There are no clear cut regulations regarding what foods can be called "natural," which means just about any company can slap that label on its packages, add a fancy "green" design and jack up the price.

Says Andrew Schrage of MoneyCrashers: "Before buying any food that is touted as being “all natural,” take a look at the ingredient list before you check out. Keep in mind that butter and salt are indeed natural ingredients. So stocking up on natural foods may not achieve anything other than increasing your grocery bill."

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When it comes to ridiculous-looking toning shoes and clothing designed to help shed pounds faster, you might want to hold off. 

Reebok has already paid $25 million to consumers for allegedly over-marketing its line of toning shoes' weight loss power. And the one study that seems to support the claim that tight-fitting threads help burn more calories only involved about 15 participants.

"I think there are much simpler  and less expensive ways the average person can bump up calorie burn and build strength," says Shape.com's Liz Neporent. "For instance,  interval training and hill work. These workouts certainly have the science behind them."

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Coconut water may be nature's version of Gatorade but some brands have already caught fire for over-hyping its nutrient content.

Vita Coco agreed to settle a $10 million class-action lawsuit over an independent study that showed the drinks didn't pack near as many electrolytes as advertisements implied.

Some coconut water is also loaded with added sugar, which will do nothing to help your waistline. Instead, pick up your own young green coconuts on the cheap from an Asian produce market. Just crack them open with a cleaver and pop in a straw.

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People really will do anything to shed pounds, even if it means injecting themselves with hormones made from another woman's placenta.

The FDA ordered companies to stop selling HCG (a protein made in the placenta and passed through pregnant woman's' urine) after it was used in conjunction with low-calorie diet regimens. A 40-day kit sells for $120, but the hormone has only been approved for use in fertility treatments.

Per the Mayo Clinic: "HCG is not approved for over-the-counter use, nor has it been proved to work for weight loss. Companies that sell over-the-counter HCG weight-loss products are breaking the law."

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From the cabbage soup plan to the infamous Beyonce "Master Cleanse", there's hardly any science to back them up, says Essential Nutrition for You's Rania Batayneh.

"What consumers need to know is that your body naturally detoxifies itself through our lungs, skin and kidneys," she said. "Sweat it out, breathe it out and eliminate. Eating a clean diet daily will give you the feeling you are looking forward to at the end of your depriving cleanse, so get started. Besides, cleanses are unnatural and typically based on eliminating food groups and or foods altogether."

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"Adding healthy components to unhealthy things just doesn’t make sense," says Batayneh. "What is 1 gram of fiber (or maybe 10 for those who over-consume artificial sweeteners) going to do for you when you should really be focusing on whole grains, beans, seeds, fruits and vegetables versus relying on your coffee for fiber? This small dose of fiber should not convince you to try it."

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Batayneh calls this one of the worst weight-loss myths out there and another attempt to play on the low-carb fad sparked by the Atkin's diet. 

"A gluten-free diet does not necessarily mean a low-carb diet," she says. "A person who eats gluten-free can ingest plenty of carbohydrates from gluten-free breads, pastas, cereals, and baked goods as well as vegetables, fruits, beans, and legumes."

Gluten-free lifestyles are vital to anyone with a gluten allergy. But "if you don’t have a medical reason for following a gluten-free diet, there’s probably no benefit,” says Tricia Thompson, R.D., founder of glutenfreedietitian.com.

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Even federal guidelines on what's certified organic aren't all that stringent and plenty of regular produce isn't "dirty" enough to warrant paying top dollar  (as much as 150% more) for organic versions anyway. 

The Environmental Works Group has an excellent chart detailing which non-organically grown produce is most "dirty" and and which is "clean."

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"We have portion distortion in this nation and even though I like that [100-calorie packs] are pre-portioned, that can be a more expensive option," Batayneh says.

Instead, keep a measuring cup in your desk drawer to scoop out perfect portions of whatever you're munching on at work (almonds, trail mix, etc.) rather than paying more for packaging.

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"We've had waves of costly 'super juices' in the marketplace that were nothing more than fruit juice," says clinical nutritionist Stella Metsovas. "Testing chemical properties in a laboratory is completely different once the product is pasteurized. There is no possibility of processing a super-fruit to compete with the natural form (i.e.: a handful of berries)." 

The acai berry's popularity in the U.S. spawned a new wave of consumer scams involving "free trial offers" for smoothies, juices and other products.

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Not only will they destroy your teeth, but a recent study by the American Diabetes Association pretty much proved diet soda drinkers were packing on pounds, not shedding them.

Zero-calorie sodas have also been linked to a slew of nasty diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

If you're looking to kick the habit, try weening yourself off slowly with fizzy substitutes like seltzer water or reducing your portion size bit by bit.

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