Patents on genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer are invalid, ruled a New York federal court on Monday.
Personalized medicine has proved an elusive dream. Since the decoding of the human genome, biotechnology companies have claimed that by matching a person’s genetic make-up with specialised treatments, they can tailor drugs to maximise benefits and minimise side effects. Alas, researchers have discovered that the link between a given person’s genetic make-up and specific diseases is much more complex than they had hoped. The tantalising vision remains out of reach.
A rare exception has been the success that Myriad Genetics, an American firm, has had with two genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2. Certain versions of these genes, it has been shown, are associated with a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The University of Utah has patented the genes and licenses them to Myriad. The firm uses that exclusivity to create expensive genetic tests for cancer risk which only it offers for sale (the patents and licensing conditions are different outside the United States).
The BRCA patents have long frustrated medical researchers, cancer lobbyists and legal activists. They claim that the firm’s grip on the two genes unlawfully stifles both innovation and basic science. Given the history of patent rulings in America, that has been a fringe argument—until now.