Father of DNA Weighs In On Patentability of Human Genes
Celebrated scientist James D. Watson, filed an amicus brief in Association of Molecular v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. Watson submitted the amicus brief on January 31st, objecting to Myriad’s attempt to patent a breast cancer gene that the company isolated. Without Watson’s groundbreaking contributions to cell biology, the issue of patentability of human genes would not exist.
Watson, along with Francis Crick and the help of Rosalind Franklin, discovered the structure of DNA in the 1950s. As a pioneer of human genetics, Watson initially filed the brief with the court of appeals, but was unsuccessful in convincing the court. Watson does not support either side, but rather argues that genes cannot be patented, since they are products of nature. As one of the most influential scientists of cell biology and modern genetics, Watson objects to privatization and monopolization of human genes by companies, individuals, and governments, as stated in the press release by Wiley Rein LLP, Watson’s counsel.
The dispute surrounds Myriad’s isolation of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancer genes, which help determine the hereditary character of a specific patient’s cancer. In patenting the gene, Myriad monopolizes the market, making the test for this gene expensive and inaccessible to many affected breast cancer patients.
The case has been the center of much controversy. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who which is representing doctors challenging the patentability, has been a vocal player in the case. The ACLU contests Myriad’s assertion that isolated genes become a human invention when removed from the body, and are no longer a product of nature. The group responded by stating, “under this rationale, a kidney ‘isolated’ from the body would be patentable, gold ‘isolated’ from a stream would be patentable and leaves ‘isolated’ from trees would be patentable.”
The Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments last November, though they have yet to be scheduled. Over twenty amicus briefs have been filed with Supreme Court since late January. Watson’s brief holds symbolic importance, given his role in the field of cell biology. His compelling arguments include scientific advances since his discovery of DNA and emphasized these studies’ intent to benefit all, not certain corporations or individuals. He left the court with a gripping statement in the brief, which summarizes the views of many opposing Myriad, stating, “as a product of nature, a human gene’s primary purpose is to encode the information for creating proteins, enzymes, cells and all the other components that make us who we are…life’s instructions ought not be controlled by legal monopolies created at the whim of Congress or the courts.”