The Empire of Cancer: Gene Patents and Cancer Voices

(2013) 22 (2) Journal of Law, Information, and Science, EAP 1-47

40 Pages Posted: 16 Dec 2013 Last revised: 21 Jan 2014

See all articles by Matthew Rimmer

Matthew Rimmer

Queensland University of Technology (QUT)

Date Written: December 15, 2013


In his book, The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes a history of cancer — "It is a chronicle of an ancient disease — once a clandestine, 'whispered-about' illness — that has metamorphosed into a lethal shape-shifting entity imbued with such penetrating metaphorical, medical, scientific, and political potency that cancer is often described as the defining plague of our generation."

Increasingly, an important theme in the history of cancer is the role of law, particularly in the field of intellectual property law. It is striking that a number of contemporary policy debates over intellectual property and public health have concerned cancer research, diagnosis, and treatment. In the area of access to essential medicines, there has been much debate over Novartis’ patent application in respect of Glivec, a treatment for leukaemia. India’s Supreme Court held that the Swiss company’s patent application violated a safeguard provision in India’s patent law designed to stop evergreening. In the field of tobacco control, the Australian Government introduced plain packaging for tobacco products in order to address the health burdens associated with the tobacco epidemic. This regime was successfully defended in the High Court of Australia. In the area of intellectual property and biotechnology, there have been significant disputes over the Utah biotechnology company Myriad Genetics and its patents in respect of genetic testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are related to breast cancer and ovarian cancer. The Federal Court of Australia handed down a decision on the validity of Myriad Genetics’ patent in respect of genetic testing for BRCA1 in February 2013. The Supreme Court of the United States heard a challenge to the validity of Myriad Genetics’ patents in this area in April 2013, and handed down a judgment in July 2013. Such disputes have involved tensions between intellectual property rights, and public health. This article focuses upon one of these important test cases involving intellectual property, public health, and cancer research. In June 2010, Cancer Voices Australia and Yvonne D’Arcy brought an action in the Federal Court of Australia against the validity of a BRCA1 patent — held by Myriad Genetics Inc, the Centre de Recherche du Chul, the Cancer Institute of Japan and Genetic Technologies Limited. Yvonne D’Arcy — a Brisbane woman who has had treatment for breast cancer — maintained: "I believe that what they are doing is morally and ethically corrupt and that big companies should not control any parts of the human body." She observed: "For my daughter, I've had her have [sic] mammograms, etc, because of me but I would still like her to be able to have the test to see if the mutation gene is in there from me."

The applicants made the following arguments:

"Genes and the information represented by human gene sequences are products of nature universally present in each individual, and the information content of a human gene sequence is fixed. Genetic variations or mutations are products of nature. The isolation of the BRCA1 gene mutation from the human body constitutes no more than a medical or scientific discovery of a naturally occurring phenomenon and does not give rise to a patentable invention."

The applicants also argued that "the alleged invention is not a patentable invention in that, so far as claimed in claims 1–3, it is not a manner of manufacture within the meaning of s 6 of the Statute of Monopolies". The applicants suggested that "the alleged invention is a mere discovery". Moreover, the applicants contended that "the alleged invention of each of claims 1-3 is not a patentable invention because they are claims for biological processes for the generation of human beings". The applicants, though, later dropped the argument that the patent claims related to biological processes for the generation of human beings.

In February 2013, Nicholas J of the Federal Court of Australia considered the case brought by Cancer Voices Australia and Yvonne D’Arcy against Myriad Genetics. The judge presented the issues in the case, as follows:

"The issue that arises in this case is of considerable importance. It relates to the patentability of genes, or gene sequences, and the practice of 'gene patenting'. Briefly stated, the issue to be decided is whether under the Patents Act 1990 (Cth) a valid patent may be granted for a claim that covers naturally occurring nucleic acid — either deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or ribonucleic acid (RNA) — that has been 'isolated'". In this context, the word "isolated" implies that naturally occurring nucleic acid found in the cells of the human body, whether it be DNA or RNA, has been removed from the cellular environment in which it naturally exists and separated from other cellular components also found there.

The genes found in the human body are made of nucleic acid. The particular gene with which the patent in suit is concerned (BRCA1) is a human breast and ovarian cancer disposing gene. Various mutations that may be present in this gene have been linked to various forms of cancer including breast cancer and ovarian cancer.' The judge held in this particular case that Myriad Genetics’ patent claims were a "manner of manufacture" under s 6 of the Statute of Monopolies and s 18(1)(a) of the Patents Act 1990 (Cth). The matter is currently under appeal in the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia.

This article interprets the dispute over Myriad Genetics in light of the scholarly work of Nobel Laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz on inequality. Such work has significant explanatory power in the context of intellectual property and biotechnology. First, Stiglitz has contended that "societal inequality was a result not just of the laws of economics, but also of how we shape the economy — through politics, including through almost every aspect of our legal system". Stiglitz is concerned that "our intellectual property regime … contributes needlessly to the gravest form of inequality." He maintains: "The right to life should not be contingent on the ability to pay." Second, Stiglitz worries that "some of the most iniquitous aspects of inequality creation within our economic system are a result of 'rent-seeking': profits, and inequality, generated by manipulating social or political conditions to get a larger share of the economic pie, rather than increasing the size of that pie". He observes that "the most iniquitous aspect of this wealth appropriation arises when the wealth that goes to the top comes at the expense of the bottom." Third, Stiglitz comments: "When the legal regime governing intellectual property rights is designed poorly, it facilitates rent-seeking" and "the result is that there is actually less innovation and more inequality." He is concerned that intellectual property regimes "create monopoly rents that impede access to health both create inequality and hamper growth more generally." Finally, Stiglitz has recommended: "Government-financed research, foundations, and the prize system … are alternatives, with major advantages, and without the inequality-increasing disadvantages of the current intellectual property rights system.’"

This article provides a critical analysis of the Australian litigation and debate surrounding Myriad Genetics’ patents in respect of genetic testing for BRCA1. First, it considers the ruling of Nicholas J in the Federal Court of Australia that Myriad Genetics’ patent was a manner of manufacture as it related to an artificially created state of affairs, and not mere products of nature. Second, it examines the policy debate over gene patents in Australia, and its relevance to the litigation involving Myriad Genetics. Third, it examines comparative law, and contrasts the ruling by Nicholas J in the Federal Court of Australia with developments in the United States, Canada, and the European Union. Fourth, this piece considers the reaction to the decision of Nicholas at first instance in Australia. Fifth, the article assesses the prospects of an appeal to the Full Federal Court of Australia over the Myriad Genetics’ patents. Finally, this article observes that, whatever happens in respect of litigation against Myriad Genetics, there remains controversy over Genetic Technologies Limited. The Melbourne firm has been aggressively licensing and enforcing its related patents on non-coding DNA and genomic mapping.

Keywords: Genetics, Patent Law, Gene Patents, Cancer Voices, Myriad Genetics, Patent Validity, Crown Use, Compulsory Licensing, Experimental Use, Genetic Technologies Limited, Biotechnology, Genetic Testing, Health Law

Suggested Citation

Rimmer, Matthew, The Empire of Cancer: Gene Patents and Cancer Voices (December 15, 2013). (2013) 22 (2) Journal of Law, Information, and Science, EAP 1-47, Available at SSRN:

Matthew Rimmer (Contact Author)

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) ( email )

Level 4, C Block Gardens Point
2 George St
Brisbane, Queensland QLD 4000

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