Doth not a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Of course it does. The same is true of an isolated gene. It may have different uses and molecular characteristics once separated from the human genome. However, the genetic code within the gene remains the same. Because such code is found in nature, the isolated gene should not be patentable subject matter. And yet the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recently ruled in The Assoc. for Molecular Pathology, et. al. v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. (“Myriad”) that such a gene is patentable. In so holding, the Court went too far.
Myriad filed a patent over BRCA, which is an isolated gene from the human genome. Think of the BRCA as a link from a chain link fence. The company then used BRCA for various purposes, including the treatment for breast cancer. Indeed, the company filed a patent for such uses and applications. This patent was not the subject of the dispute.
Instead, the dispute centers on whether Myriad has the right to a government sanctioned monopoly over BRCA. A majority of the Federal Circuit held that it did. The majority’s reasoning: while the genetic code that underlies the BRCA is the same as the genetic code found in the human genome, the molecular nature of the BRCA changes once isolated from its chain. This is akin to saying that a link from a chain link fence can be heated and bent into forms that would not be possible if the link were still in the chain link fence.
However, the fact remains that the link still is made of the metal from which it came, just as the BRCA has the same generic code. Of course, Myriad should be — and was — rewarded with a patent for new and non-obvious applications or uses of the BRCA for the treatment of breast cancer. And the Court rightly upheld Myriad’s patent over a genetically modified gene that the company constructed in the laboratory and which did not naturally occur in nature.
In the end, allowing Myriad to monopolize the BRCA gene with a patent precludes others from experimenting with the gene in order to find new commercial and non-commercial applications that benefit society. In so doing, the Federal Circuit has placed too much undeserved power over a naturally occurring item in the hands of one company.