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The Angelina Jolie Connection: The Debate Over Patenting Human Genes

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From the star's op-ed in the New York Times all the way to the Supreme Court, the debate over human gene patents is heating up.

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The Case for Gene Patenting

On the side supporting continued gene patenting are the major business interests that already benefit from its practice: biotech firms, pharmaceutical companies, patent attorneys, and intellectual property offices. With the $3,500 diagnostic test and all the research to which it has exclusive rights, Myriad obviously wants to contest any kind of change to the status quo. Banning gene patents would open the door to competition, which would mean lower prices for consumers, too.

A lot of work and capital investment goes into genetic research, and proponents argue that companies like Myriad Genetics should be rewarded for their efforts. Furthermore, argue gene patent supporters, ending gene patents might reduce the incentive to press onward with difficult genetic research. The free market argument says that the patents make innovation more common, which means treatments and preventive measures for serious diseases will also be more common. Patents create incentives for heightened investment in research, which raises the quality of that research, therefore offering greater benefits to society.

Another argument for continuing gene patenting? It's already been happening for 30 years. If the Supreme Court did rule against the Patent Office in the upcoming case, it wouldn't necessarily invalidate existing patents, but it would definitely make those patents difficult to enforce.

The Supreme Court Will Decide

On November 30, 2012, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal of the Association for Molecular Pathology after the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled for the second time that genes could be patented. Oral arguments are scheduled to begin on April 15, 2013. [Author's note: An update here -- the case is ongoing, and a decision is expected later this year.]

Though many countries won't honor patents for genes, including Canada, there has been no definitive, legal strike against the practice of patenting genes in the US or elsewhere. A decision against the US Patent Office in the spring could hurt major pharmaceutical companies and encourage a flourishing of genetic research. As Dr. Allingham-Hawkins told us, "If the US makes that decision, it will be a first; it will be a precedent."

Follow me on Twitter: @JoshWolonick and @Minyanville
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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