Australia’s highest court has ruled unanimously that a version of a gene that is linked to an increased risk for breast cancer cannot be patented. The case was brought by 69-year-old pensioner from Queensland, Yvonne D’Arcy, who had taken the US company Myriad Genetics to court over its patent for mutations in the BRCA1 gene that increase the probability of breast and ovarian cancer developing, as The Sydney Morning Herald reports. Although she lost twice in the lower courts, the High Court of Australia allowed her appeal, ruling that a gene was not a “patentable invention.”
The court based its reasoning (PDF) on the fact that, although an isolated gene such as BRCA1 was “a product of human action, it was the existence of the information stored in the relevant sequences that was an essential element of the invention as claimed.” Since the information stored in the DNA as a sequence of nucleotides was a product of nature, it did not require human action to bring it into existence, and therefore could not be patented.
Although that seems a sensible ruling, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry has been fighting against this self-evident logic for years. The view that genes could be patented suffered a major defeat in 2013, when the US Supreme Court struck down Myriad Genetics’ patents on the genes BRCA1 and the similar BRCA2. The industry was hoping that a win in Australia could keep alive the idea that genes could be owned by a company in the form of a patent monopoly. The victory by D’Arcy now makes it highly likely that other judges around the world will take the view that genes cannot be patented.