The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that human genes cannot be patented, but the decision isn't expected to impact local biotech companies.
While the high court declared Myriad Genetics' patents over two genes correlated with increased risk of breast cancer to be invalid, it affirmed the legality of patenting synthetic DNA — a decision that some Bay Area biotech companies applauded.
"Companies such as Genemed that are looking to provide better and more innovative tests are no longer shackled by the threat of litigation," said Director Carolyn Tsao of South San Francisco-based Genemed Biotechnologies. "As a result of the ruling, patients will now have access to a wider availability of tests that are less costly."
Myriad had argued it deserved patent rights over genes it isolated to create a test to identify women who could be at risk of breast cancer because of the years of research it put into identifying the genes. But in the decision, the court made a distinction between "natural" genes and those created in labs by biotech engineers.
South City-based Genentech also supported the court's affirmation of synthetic DNA.
"The patent protection that we have for our medicines and diagnostics today largely consists of other types of patents, not patents for naturally occurring DNA," the company said in a statement.
But Boston-based patent lawyer Brenda Jarrell, who earned a doctorate in biochemistry from UC Berkeley, said the ruling is going to discourage investments in the type of research that uncovered the genes correlated to breast cancer risks.
"The only thing we're incentivizing here is staying away," she said.
Jarrell agreed that established companies like Genentech won't be negatively impacted by the decision, but she argued that it could discourage startups from diving into new waters.
But professor David Haussler, a leader in the field of cancer genomics research at UC Santa Cruz, said the decision won't dissuade meaningful research.