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Supreme Court Says Genes Can't Be Patented

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The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on same-sex marriage or affirmative action, but on Thursday, it did rule that human genes cannot be patented, a major decision that could have a sweeping impact on scientific research and lead to cheaper genetic testing. Washington bureau reporter Michael Scotto filed the following report for NY1.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When you think of patents, the human body probably doesn't immediately come to mind. But for the last couple of months, the Supreme Court has been weighing whether human genes may be patented.

On Thursday, the justices unanimously ruled they may not.

In the court's opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, "…we hold that a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated…"

"The decision, the most important part of it, which says you can't patent, you can't own rights to an isolated gene that you isolate, that's a great decision. It's going to be a positive thing for society," said William Brown of the Brookings Institution.

The ruling stems from a challenge to Myriad Genetics' long-held patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2. Those are the defective genes that put some women at high risk of developing ovarian and breast cancer.

According to the court, "…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."

But by claiming ownership, Myriad has been able to control the expensive test used to show if women carry the genes.

Last month, Angelina Jolie brought public awareness to both the genes and the test when she announced she had a double mastectomy upon learning she'd inherited one of the genes.

While it's possible the decision could lead some companies to cut back on expensive projects that can't lead to patents, observers say in the end, more businesses will actually expand their research, resulting in more affordable genetic tests.

The court did rule that companies can hold patents on synthetic versions of genes. That's the part of the ruling Myriad seized on in its statement about a decision that will impact both its business and critical scientific research being conducted across the country.

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