America has been fixated upon the Supreme Court's upcoming decision regarding President Obama's healthcare plan, so much so that we appear to have missed another crucial ruling in the healthcare field. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled to revoke Myriad Genetics Inc.'s patents on the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes. Gene patents have been a controversial topic since the first gene was patented in 1982. The precedent was set way back in 1906, when the Supreme Court ruled that purified adrenaline could be patented because its purified state was more useful than its natural state. The BRCA patents have been the lightening rod for the entire gene patenting issue because Myriad is the only company that can produce a test for mutant BRCA genes. This test can help inform women how aggressive of treatment to choose. For example, one of the women who filed the original lawsuit tried to get the BRCA test from Myriad when she was diagnosed with breast cancer to see if she had one of the really bad BRCA mutations, which would increase her risk of ovarian cancer by 50%. However, her insurance did not cover the $3000 Myriad test, and since no one else was allowed to offer it, she was out of options. This situation prompted her and other women to sue Myriad, with the assistance of the ACLU. And now, they've won, which does not mean that Myriad immediately loses its BRCA patents, but rather that the decision gets handed back to the district courts for new action.
Personally, I'm not sure what to make of this decision. If all gene patents are tossed out, the face of pharmaceutical research will change dramatically. Companies claim that without patent protection on the genes, there is no way for them to make a profit on potential therapies, because the cost of discovery is so high, but the idea of patenting something contained within every humans' cells seems wrong. In any case, it should be interesting to see how the issue of gene patents plays out: will pharmaceutical research grind to a halt without patent protection? Or would continued gene patenting slow scientific process and doom consumers to prohibitively expensive tests and treatments? Probably neither, but the changes in healthcare and pharmaceuticals resulting will nonetheless be interesting to watch.