Wednesday, August 27, 2014
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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. Patients, researchers, and much of the life sciences industry have a lot at stake.

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

A DNA strand.
A DNA strand.

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.

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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.

Robert I. Field, Ph.D., J.D., M.P.H. Professor, School of Law & Drexel School of Public Health
About this blog

The Field Clinic reports and analyzes health care laws, government policies, and political trends that are transforming the care we receive and the way we pay for it. Read more about our panel of bloggers here.

This blog is produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health-policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. Portions of this blog may also be found on Inquirer.com and in the Inquirer's Sunday Health Section.

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Robert I. Field, Ph.D., J.D., M.P.H. Professor, School of Law & Drexel School of Public Health
Jeffrey Brenner, MD Founder of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, Medical Director of the Urban Health Institute at Cooper University Healthcare
Andy Carter President & CEO, The Hospital & Healthsystem Assoc. of Pa.
Robert B. Doherty Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs & Public Policy American College of Physicians
David Grande, MD, MPA Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania
Tine Hansen-Turton Chief Strategy Officer of Public Health Management Corporation
Drew A. Harris, DPM, MPH Director of Health Policy Program at the Jefferson School of Population Health
Antoinette Kraus Director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network
Laval Miller-Wilson Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Health Law Project
David B. Nash, MD, MBA Founding Dean of the Jefferson School of Population Health
Mark V. Pauly, Ph.D. Professor of Health Care Management, Business Economics and Public Policy at The Wharton School
Howard J. Peterson, MHA Managing Partner of TRG Healthcare, a national healthcare consulting firm
Donald Schwarz, MD, MPH Deputy Mayor for Health & Opportunity and Health Commissioner for the City of Philadelphia
Paula L. Stillman, MD, MBA Healthcare consultant with special expertise in population health and disease management
Elizabeth A. W. Williams Senior Vice President & Chief Communications Officer for Independence Blue Cross
Krystyna Dereszowska A third-year law student concentrating in health at Drexel
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