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Supreme Court Gene Patenting Decision Could Affect Local Biotech Industry

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that private companies cannot patent naturally occurring human genes. That could affect the patent portfolios of some San Diego biotech companies.

— The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday to invalidate patents on naturally occurring human genes. That's good news for women wanting to get tested for their genetic risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Utah-based company Myriad Genetics no longer owns the specific genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, these tests look for. Mutations on these genes strongly predict a woman's likelihood of developing certain cancers, as anyone who read Angelina Jolie's recent New York Times op-ed will know. Just hours after the court's unanimous decision came through, rival companies stepped in to offer the gene tests at a much lower cost.

Academic researchers also cheered the decision. They can now study these genes without fear of attracting a cease-and-desist letter from Myriad.

Photo credit: IRRI Images

The Supreme Court's invalidation of patents on naturally occurring genes could affect the patent portfolios of San Diego biotech companies.

But how will this decision affect San Diego's biotech industry, the second largest life sciences cluster in the United States? Joe Panetta—president of San Diego trade group BIOCOM—says local biotech professionals weren't fazed by the decision.

"I think biotech in San Diego isn't particularly surprised by the ruling," Panetta said between panels at this week's CALBIO conference. "I don't think there was any expectation that it was going to be anything different and that there would be any significant negative impact as a result."

The conference's keynote speaker, J. Craig Venter, struck the same note. "I think it reaffirms very nicely the assumptions that all of us are operating on," he said.

Companies may have seen this ruling coming, but some San Diego firms may need to adjust their business strategy after today's ruling. According to rankings published by leading biotech journal Nature Biotechnology, Isis Pharmaceuticals and Life Technologies, both based in Carlsbad, are among the top holders of gene patents.

The University of California system could also be affected. The system earns money off hundreds of gene patents. In fact, they hold the first patent ever approved on human genetic material. Issued in 1982, this patent gave the university's Regents sole rights to a human growth hormone active during pregnancy.

Panetta sees the industry moving toward synthetic genes, though. And that puts them on the right side of patent law, according to the Supreme Court. Even though the court struck down patents on genes made by nature, it also upheld patents on genetic technology made by people.


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