Midday Report: Supreme Court Considers Patents on Human Genes

Human DNA case

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.