The History of Patenting Genetic Material

Annual Review of Genetics, Vol. 49, p. 161, 2015

22 Pages Posted: 11 Jan 2016

See all articles by Jacob S. Sherkow

Jacob S. Sherkow

University of Illinois College of Law; Center for Advanced Studies in Biomedical Innovation Law

Henry T. Greely

Stanford Law School

Date Written: December 4, 2015

Abstract

The US Supreme Court’s recent decision in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. declared, for the first time, that isolated human genes cannot be patented. Many have wondered how genes were ever the subjects of patents. The answer lies in a nuanced understanding of both legal and scientific history. Since the early twentieth century, “products of nature” were not eligible to be patented unless they were “isolated and purified” from their surrounding environment. As molecular biology advanced, and the capability to isolate genes both physically and by sequence came to fruition, researchers (and patent offices) began to apply patent-law logic to genes themselves. These patents, along with other biological patents, generated substantial social and political criticism. Myriad Genetics, a company with patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2, two genes critical to assessing early-onset breast and ovarian cancer risk, and with a particularly controversial business approach, became the antagonist in an ultimately successful campaign to overturn gene patents in court. Despite Myriad’s defeat, some questions concerning the rights to monopolize genetic information remain. The history leading to that defeat may be relevant to these future issues.

Suggested Citation

Sherkow, Jacob S. and Greely, Henry (Hank) T., The History of Patenting Genetic Material (December 4, 2015). Annual Review of Genetics, Vol. 49, p. 161, 2015, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2713761

Jacob S. Sherkow

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States

Center for Advanced Studies in Biomedical Innovation Law ( email )

Studiestraede 6
Studiestrade 6
Copenhagen, DK-1455
Denmark

HOME PAGE: http://jura.ku.dk/cebil/staff/

Henry (Hank) T. Greely (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-723-2517 (Phone)
650-725-0253 (Fax)

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