DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court examines a question for the 21st century - whether human genes may be patented.
GREENE: The case involves a Utah company, Myriad Genetics. It isolated two genes that have mutations leading to breast and ovarian cancer.
INSKEEP: Myriad patented that discovery, giving it a monopoly for 20 years on the use of the genes for research, diagnostics and treatment.
GREENE: Researchers, medical groups and patients challenged this move, asking if you can really patent some of a genetic code to life.
INSKEEP: Now, the commercial implications here are huge, so the story is today's Business Bottom Line. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: There is no way to overstate the importance of this case to the future of science and medicine. In the view of Myriad and its supporters in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, patents are the keys to making discoveries possible. Their opponents - including leading medical groups and Nobel Prize-winning scientists - contend that Myriad's patent improperly puts a lock on research and diagnostics.
The U.S. patent system was authorized in the Constitution, to give temporary economic incentives to inventors in order to advance science. The general rules have been established in statutes and Supreme Court precedent for over 150 years. You can't patent a product of nature, or a law of nature. It doesn't matter that the task has been difficult or costly; nature is immune to patents. So even though it may have taken Einstein a long time to figure out that E=MC squared, he couldn't have patented that law of nature.
Until relatively recently, much of the medical profession disdained patents, except to ensure quality. Here, for example, is Dr. Jonas Salk in 1955, responding to a question on CBS about whether he had patented his revolutionary polio vaccine.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED CBS BROADCAST)
DR. JONAS SALK: There is no patent. This is - could you patent the sun? (LAUGHTER)
TOTENBERG: In today's case, Myriad Genetics contends that the genes it isolated are not like the sun. CEO Mark Capone notes that the 20,000 genes in the human body exist in a 6-foot-long molecule that's coiled and compacted, and stuffed into each cell. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Capone is not CEO of Myriad. He's president of Myriad Genetics Laboratories, which is a subsidiary of Myriad Genetics Inc.]
MARK CAPONE: What Myriad was able to do is sort through all those 20,000 genes, and find the two that were highly linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
GREGORY CASTANIAS: It is as though a single grain of sand was compared to the Empire State Building's height.
CAPONE: That's Gregory Castanias, Myriad's lawyer. He'll tell the justices that isolating the genes, known as BRCA - or BRCA1 and 2 genes - justifies a patent because...
CASTANIAS: It is the final step in an extraordinarily complicated set of inventive actions that led to the creation of this molecule, which had never been available to the world before.
TOTENBERG: Not so, says the ACLU's Christopher Hansen, representing researchers and others challenging the patent. Human genes, he contends, are products of nature. They're parts of the body.
CHRISTOPHER HANSEN: All Myriad does is take a part of the body out of the body. It is no different than taking a kidney out of the body. Just because you're the person who takes the kidney out of the body, doesn't entitle you to a patent on kidneys.
TOTENBERG: Myriad's lawyer, however, contends that by isolating the gene and snipping it out of the other DNA material, Myriad has created a new and patentable thing.
CASTANIAS: It is no different than allowing a baseball bat or a cast iron fence to be patented as a new invention. And just because those originated in a tree - or originated in a rock, where the iron had to be removed from it - that doesn't make those human inventions any less patent-eligible.
TOTENBERG: NYU law professor Rochelle Dreyfuss, a nationally known patent expert who's not associated with either side in this case, puts the question before the court this way.
ROCHELLE DREYFUSS: We do know Myriad did a lot of work. But is the thing that's isolated, significantly different from the way that it was when it was in nature?
TOTENBERG: Lawyer Hansen, representing the patent challengers, contends that Myriad is merely following nature's instructions about where to snip out the gene.
HANSEN: The structure of the gene - where the gene starts, where the gene ends - all of those are decisions that nature made. Myriad just uncovered the fact that nature had made those decisions.
TOTENBERG: What's more, he argues, by patenting the BRCA1 and 2 genes, Myriad has hampered research by scientists outside the company. The company denies that, contending that 18,000 scientists have published 10,000 papers on the genes. Some researchers concede that Myriad has not invoked its right to block their research, but they're galled by the fact that the information they turn up in clinical trials cannot be shared with patients.
And patients are outraged that they can't get a second opinion on their own genes. They cite, for example, the case of Kathleen Maxian, whose sister was tested by Myriad for the BRCA genes after she had breast cancer at an early age. Based on the negative results that came back, all of the women in the family thought they were not at a heightened risk of breast or ovarian cancer. Two years later, however, Kathleen was diagnosed with ovarian cancer; and a different and supplemental test Myriad then offered, showed the family did have the BRCA gene. Genetic counselor Ellen Matloff says that scientists learned in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the Myriad test was missing mutations in some families.
ELLEN MATLOFF: I contacted Myriad Genetics and asked them if we could offer a test for our patients who tested negative, but in whom we really suspected we were missing something. And we were told absolutely not; it's a patent violation.
TOTENBERG: Another bone of contention over the patent is the charge for the test. Myriad charges $3,000 for a test experts say costs only 200. Myriad CEO Capone says the company is simply trying to recoup the tens of millions of dollars it invested in these two genes alone. Chris Hansen has a tart reply for that.
HANSEN: A patent isn't a reward for effort. A patent is a reward for invention. And Myriad didn't invent anything.
TOTENBERG: Each side, in this case, sees the future of science threatened. Those challenging Myriad see gene patenting as an attempt to monopolize and block future exploration in the new universe of genetics, and how it applies to finding new treatments for disease. Myriad and its supporters, however, see patents as the key to exploration. Myriad CEO Capone.
CAPONE: We believe we are on the cusp of a revolution of how we treat our patients in this country, by translating personalized medicine into the clinic. But without the incentives offered by a strong and stable intellectual property system, we do not believe we will be able to translate these incredible discoveries that we're about to make, into clinical care for patients.
TOTENBERG: Myriad lawyer Greg Castanias is a little more down to earth.
CASTANIAS: On some level, it is about money because medicine doesn't happen for free. If you look at the enormous amount of investment - and not everything works, that you invest in - but the patent system is critical to medical care.
TOTENBERG: So how do other countries handle this dilemma? Most do grant patents on genes. But they also have exceptions to the patent, allowing researchers to use the genes freely; and allowing anyone who can, to develop diagnostic tests. That, however, would require an act of Congress.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.