Should a firm have the right to use the genetic code in your cells?

The Supreme Court hearing yesterday on whether human genes can be patented cuts to the heart of law, science, and even philosophy. Should a firm have the exclusive right to use the genetic code in your cells?

Patients, researchers, and much of the life sciences industry have a lot at stake.

But beneath it lies a deeper issue that may be more important in the long-run. Who should own the aggregated information that companies compile though gene patents? The issue was not raised in the hour-long hearing by the lawyers or the justices, but it's critical.

Myriad Genetics, the defendant in the case, has used its patents on two breast cancer genes, BRCA 1 and 2, to block anyone else from testing for them. As sole test provider, it has built a database with results from thousands of women.

This is an invaluable resource. It holds the key to deciphering the meaning of mutations in the genes, of which there are dozens. When testing reveals one, Myriad can search for outcomes in every other patient who has it.

But it keeps the database to itself. No one else can use it. If Myriad does not analyze a mutation, it will not be analyzed.

Gene patents allow companies like Myriad to compile this precious information and keep it to themselves. That may be more important than the monopolies the patents grant to conduct the underlying tests.

Genes are just strings of information, like computer code. But when crunched and analyzed, they hold tremendous power.

This means that in ruling on gene patents, the Court may also set the course for the information revolution in medicine - whether the justices realize it or not.