When the U.S. Supreme Court is of unanimous mind on a particular matter, the issues at hand must be pretty obvious. Such was the case in a decision issued by the high court on Thursday ruling that companies cannot patent parts of naturally occurring human genes.
We are not only pleased with the decision, but gratified that it was a 9-0 vote by the court. Such votes leave little doubt about the court's thinking on a particular matter.
But perhaps the most important part of this case is that the court's decision is nuanced. It recognized the difference between discovery and innovation.
We think that is an important distinction that will shape the face of biomedical research for generations to come. However, it also means that some other iteration of this issue will find its way back to the courts.
At issue was that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had awarded a series of patents to Myriad Genetics Inc., based on its isolation of two human genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2.
Myriad used its patents to create a BRACAnalysis test, which looks for mutations on the breast cancer predisposition gene that are associated with much greater risks of breast and ovarian cancer. The patents have made Myriad the only seller of the tests. The company argued that the DNA it isolated in the human body made those proprietary cancer tests patentable.
The court disagreed, but added an important caveat.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the court's decision, said the patents violate patent rules. The court previously had established that laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas are not patentable.
"We hold that a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated," Thomas wrote in this case.
Patents offer legal protection for inventors to prevent others from making, using or selling a novel device, process or application.
This is by no means an esoteric debate, because drug and biotech research companies have billions of dollars of investment and years of research riding on this case.
They have argued that without the ability to recoup investments through the profits that patents protect, breakthrough medical discoveries wouldn't happen.
That is where the court's caveat comes in. The decision said that while naturally occurring genes were not patentable, synthetically manufactured genes (cDNA) are eligible for patent.
Thomas wrote that such cDNA is more than just a discovery. "The lab technician unquestionably creates something new when cDNA is made."
The court's reasonable decision should be a boon for medical science and the common good.