WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that human genes cannot be patented, a victory for cancer patients and their doctors who had challenged a Utah company's exclusive control over a defective gene sequence that is linked to cancer.
The 9-0 ruling is likely to be welcomed by medical researchers across the nation who have wanted more freedom to experiment with treatments using genetic material.
The justices rejected decisions by the U.S. patent office that allowed companies to claim control over human genes they had isolated.
"We hold that a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent-eligible merely because it has been isolated," said Justice Clarence Thomas for the court.
Myriad Genetics, the Utah company, held patents to two gene sequences that were mutations and served to predict the patient had a high risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. The company was criticized for charging high prices to women who wanted to be tested to see if they had the defective gene.
The high court said Myriad should not have been given this patent license in the first place.
"Myriad did not create anything. To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention," Thomas said.
But the decision is not a total loss for Myriad. The court said the company can maintain valid patents for "synthetically created DNA" which it created in a lab. In contrast to human genes, these synthetic combinations are "not naturally occurring" in the body and therefore can qualify as inventions, Thomas said.