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Natural DNA Cannot Be Patented, Supreme Court Rules

In a decision that could have broad-reaching effects on the future of science and medicine, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that:

-- "A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated."

-- But, synthetically created "strands of nucleotides known as composite DNA (cDNA)" are "patent eligible" because they do not occur naturally.

The case, as NPR's Nina Totenberg has reported, revolved around Myriad Genetics, a Utah biotechnology company that:

"Discovered and isolated two genes — BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 — that are highly associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad patented its discovery, giving it a 20-year monopoly over use of the genes for research, diagnostics and treatment. A group of researchers, medical groups and patients sued, challenging the patent as invalid."

The court's unanimous decision Thursday, Reuters writes, was "a mixed ruling. ... The nine justices reached a compromise by saying synthetically produced genetic material can be patented but that genes extracted from the human body, known as isolated DNA, do not merit the same legal protections."

Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas says that "we merely hold that genes and the information they encode are not patent eligible ... because they have been isolated from the surrounding genetic material."

Watch for more on the decision and its ramifications on The Shots blog.

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