In 2009, a handful of cancer patients, professional organizations, several individual doctors and researchers along with the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the decision to grant a patent to Myriad Genetics for the genes BRCA1 and 2, which are associated with hereditary breast cancer and ovarian cancer.  In March 2010, the New York federal court ruled that these patents are invalid.  In the first decision of its kind the court recognized the implications of the case when it stated, “the resolution of the issues presented to this Court deeply concerns breast cancer patients, medical professionals, researchers, caregivers, advocacy groups, existing gene patent holders and their investors, and those seeking to advance public health.”

As the ACLU explained, the patents give the company the exclusive right to perform diagnostic tests on these genes and to prevent any researcher from even looking at the genes without first getting permission from Myriad. The lawsuit charged that the challenged patents are illegal and restrict both scientific research and patients’ access to medical care.  The lawsuit had alleged that patents on human genes violate patent law because genes are “products of nature.”  The plaintiffs had also argued that these patents violate the First Amendment because the patent holders can prevent others from performing research on an entire body of knowledge.   However, the decision did not reach this argument.

See also a 60 Minutes segment on this topic.

For an opinion piece on the effect of patents that cover business processes or methods, see ‘Why Technologists Want Fewer Patents.’

Update: ‘US Supreme Court avoids clarifying patent stance’