The US Supreme Court’s ruling that DNA in the human genome is a “product of nature” that cannot be patented is of great significance. Justice Clarence Thomas, author of the decision, wrote: “A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent-eligible, merely because it has been isolated.” However, he went on to write that composite DNA “is patent-eligible because it is not naturally occurring”. The case had arisen over the patent issued to Myriad Genetics Inc, which had isolated a rare gene linked with very high rates of breast and ovarian cancer in women who carry the mutation.
The patent was in the news recently when Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie announced that she had undergone a double mastectomy after the Myriad test showed that she carried the gene. She was prompted to undergo the test and multiple operations because her mother had died of ovarian cancer. Myriad Genetics had claimed the exclusive right to offer tests for the gene, based on its patent. As the court ruled, the US Patent and Trademark Office authorises the invention or discovery of “any new and useful composition of matter” but not “laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas”.
About two decades ago, a company was given the US patent for the medicinal properties of turmeric, a vital component in almost all Ayurvedic preparations. It was as absurd as giving patent for earth’s gravitation to Isaac Newton, who merely discovered it. Recently, US president Barack Obama also raised the issue of reforming the system of patent registration in the US. Since thousands of ideas are patented every year, it has become impossible for companies which develop new products not to infringe some such patents. The court’s ruling will, hopefully, free natural phenomena and properties from the grip of patent laws.