When does a person's body not completely belong to that person? When the United States Patent and Trademark Office awards patents for human genes, that's when. But a court ruling could make all that change.
The BRCA genes aren't the only parts of the human body not completely belonging to … well, their human owners. About 20% of the human genome has already been patented, and nearly half of it by private companies -- including genes associated with muscular dystrophy and heart attacks. Thanks to recent acquisitions, Quest Diagnostics
See you in court
But all that may end. Last year, a U.S. District Court judge struck down those BRCA patents in a suit from the American Civil Liberties Union and others, which argued that genes fall outside the realm of patentable things. The judge agreed, ruling that the patents were "improperly granted" because they involved a "law of nature." Myriad is appealing that decision, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this case pushed all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Another medical patent case is already on the high court's docket and could have an impact on the Myriad case. The justices will hear an appeal from the not-for-profit Mayo Clinic challenging the validity of Prometheus Laboratories' two patents relating to the testing for and treatment of gastrointestinal disorders. Mayo claims that Prometheus cannot have the sole right to observe a natural phenomenon -- in this case, how the body reacts to certain drugs.
All health-sciences companies that rely on patent protections will be watching these cases closely. Genomic Health
In regard to the BRCA gene testing, right now Myriad charges around $3,000 for performing those tests. If the company loses the case and those genes enter the public domain, there are geneticists out there saying they could charge $300 or less. This high-risk industry has a right to be worried.
Fool contributor Dan Radovsky owns no shares in any of the companies named above. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Quest Diagnostics and Genomic Health. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.