The recent decision of the Supreme Court is a big relief for scientists like me, following the battle engaged between Myriad (the company behind the BRCA test and Angelina Jolie’s story). It clearly stipulates that natural DNA cannot be patented, but artificial (cDNA) can.
What are the differences and how it would impact us? Lets take the BRCA gene as an example.
Mutations in the BRCA genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) are linked to increased risk in breast and ovarian cancer (thus explaining Angelina’s decision for the double mastectomy that I would argue against but this not the topic of this blog). Before the decision, Myriad had the exclusivity of the BRCA gene including the gene product (protein), thus making the development of detection kit and assays exclusive to Myriad (at least in the US). The problems of this test? Very expensive ($3000-6000 per screening) and not 100% reliable. On the other side of the Atalantic Sea, French have also a BRCA kit that is slightly cheaper than the US one but also more reliable. Thus, we can clearly understand that having the open access to the genome would help the development of new technologies and at the end decrease the cost of this kit, good for your health and your wallet.
The proof of my reasoning? Look at the cost of DNA sequencing. You even have a company called “23 and Me” that sequence your genome for $100 (but also opens another genie contained in the bottle).
In the other hand, artificial DNA is still under patent. What does it mean? For the general public not much but for scientist, that means now virtually everyone can patent any cDNA or recombinant DNA (for example someone that created a hybrid of the BRCA gene fused with a green-fluorescent protein contained in a plasmid could apply a patent on it). That can be a no-problem for scientists (as patents most of the time protect the intellectual property by the scientist that formulated that cDNA and you have to acknowledge them in your publications at minimum) but may become a hassle for all these companies like Affymetrix, Illumina or Agilent that heavily rely on cDNA for the DNA microarray analysis (the next BIG THING is personnalized medicine). So let’s how things are going in that direction….