Who owns you?

Lots of companies if the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s recent decision is upheld by the Supreme Court.

On July 29th, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overturned a March 2010 ruling by United States District Judge Robert W. Sweet in Manhattan that genes could not be patented (h/t MassPirate member Lucia Fiero). The Court’s 2 to 1 ruling would allow companies and individuals to find specific gene sequences and patent them, forcing others to pay for the privilege of creating tests or treatments on those genes for up to 20 years. Judge William C. Bryson, who wrote the dissenting opinion, warned that “if sustained the court’s decision will likely have broad consequences, such as preempting methods for whole-genome sequencing.”

While our position is that patents should be abolished, we believe patents should only be used for tangible inventions and should not be applied to things found in nature or for life itself.

The continued decline in the cost of gene sequencing will allow many more people to research the genetic causes of diseases and look for solutions. However, the threat of lawsuits for infringing on another’s gene patent will hinder this needed innovation in the biotech field. Many will simply avoid areas of the human genome where patented genes exist. As This American Life has amply reported, we have already seen this problem with computer software patents.

The ability of gene patents to stifle innovation in the biotech field extends beyond making it difficult for scientists to research areas of a genome where there are genes that are patented. Since so much of science and innovation are based on sharing ideas, we fully expect that gene patents will hinder such sharing just as other patents have done.

Ultimately, this ruling will reduce the number of tests and beneficial treatments doctors will have available and will increase the cost of those that are produced. It will only decrease competition in the biotech field and serve to enrich a small number of already wealthy corporations. People will go without life-saving treatments or tests as a result and we will all be worse off because of it.

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