Supreme Court ruling clears way for more genetic research, cheaper testing

By Laura Mize • Published: August 15th, 2013
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve likely heard of actress Angelina Jolie’s decision to have both breasts removed in an effort to prevent breast cancer.

Jolie went public this spring with her choice to undergo a double mastectomy. She said she made the decision after testing positive for a genetic mutation that greatly increases breast and ovarian cancer risk. That same mutation and a similar one were at the center of a recently decided United States Supreme Court case. The issue: whether human genes may be patented.

Biotechnology companies have patented genes for decades, shielding them from outside study and blocking other companies from creating tests for them. Without competition, some companies have set exorbitant prices for tests that detect patented genes. And with so much secrecy surrounding the genes, widespread research and development about them has been limited.

The Supreme Court ruled in June that patenting naturally occurring genes is a no-no. The justices wrote that patents are for inventions, not natural things that are merely discovered. The ruling renders moot all existing patents on such genes, not just the breast and ovarian cancer ones.

In light of the court’s decision, cheaper genetic tests are already being advertised in the marketplace. More are sure to follow, along with new research on previously off-limits genes. Lower prices will mean more people can afford genetic testing, helping them to make better-informed choices on their health care. And here’s hoping the increased research will lead to some treatment and prevention advances for fighting cancer and other genetically-influenced diseases.

Genetic testing isn’t a magic ticket to better health care, but for some people, it could be a step in the right direction.