(NaturalNews) The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit to challenge the patents on the human genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, mutations of which are believed to predispose people to breast cancer.
The lawsuit names as defendants Myriad Genetics and the University of Utah Research Foundation, which hold the patents on the genes, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Commission, which issued the patents in the first place. The ACLU says that the patenting of genes is unconstitutional, and that the patenting of BRCA1 and BRCA2 in particular put important medical care out of the hands of the poor.
"I think we're talking about unreasonable profit and exploitation of people at risk," said M. Sara Rosenthal, director of the University of Kentucky Program for Bioethics, who is not involved in the lawsuit. "The issue is greed, which is never ethical."
In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that genes and life forms may be patented, and private patents are now held on 20 percent of the human genome. The remaining 80 percent was sequenced by the Human Genome Project and is in the public domain. A researcher could still patent a diagnostic test, therapy or other "new use" of a "public domain" gene, however.
According to Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation, which has joined the ACLU as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, it is absurd to presume that genes can be patented just because a new use is found for them.
"If someone removes your eyeball ... just because you remove the eyeball and wash it off, that doesn't make the eyeball patentable," he said.
Because of its patents, Myriad Genetics collects royalties for all diagnostic tests screening people for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations that increase the risk of cancer, thus driving up the price of those tests.
"I think that legal arguments about why this kind of thing isn't really something that should be patentable are really strong at a theoretical level," said bioethicist Josephine Johnston, of the Hastings Institute. "I wouldn't be that confident that the American court system would agree."