Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Someone Else Owns Your Genes

• May 14, 2013 • 6:00 AM

How it happened, why it matters now, and why it won’t be a big deal in the future.

On April 15, in the case of The Association for Molecular Pathology vs. Myriad Genetics, Inc., the United States Supreme Court heard arguments questioning the legitimacy of patents on human genes. A genetic testing company, Myriad Genetics, has patent claims on two human genes that influence a person’s risk for breast cancer. Myriad is being sued by a conglomerate of physicians, scientists, and patients who argue that Myriad has illegitimately patented a product of nature. While the lawyers and Justices delved into the arcana of patent law and molecular biology, many of the rest of us were wondering: how the heck can you patent someone’s genes?

The idea of having your genome Balkanized into small fiefdoms of intellectual property may sound offensive, but do gene patents make any practical difference?

Well, genetic information, much like a text, is encoded as a sequence of chemical “letters.” The alphabet of DNA consists of four letters (whose chemical names are abbreviated as A, C, T, or G), and each gene is made up of a sequence of tens of thousands of these letters. Scientists read the text of a gene by “sequencing” it: determining its sequence of letters. Knowing the sequence of a gene is not just important to scientists who study how that gene works; the sequence is also important for patients who are worried about their genetic risk for certain diseases. Each of us has small misspellings, deletions, and insertions scattered all over our genetic text—it’s what makes us unique from one another—and while most of these mutations are harmless, some are dangerous. For example, the information in the sequence of your particular copy of the gene BRCA1 can tell you whether you are at high risk for breast cancer. By sequencing the BRCA1 gene, you (or your mother, wife, or daughter) can find out whether you have a high-risk version of BRCA1—as long as you pay Myriad Genetics to read your sequence, because Myriad owns a patent on the sequence of your BRCA1 gene.

How did Myriad Genetics get a patent on the naturally occurring DNA sequence of the BRCA1 gene of every man, woman, and child in America? (They also own a patent on the sequence of BRCA2, another breast cancer risk gene.) Here’s the trick: you can own the naturally occurring sequence of a gene by making a patent claim to all physical copies of that sequence that exist outside of human cells.

This trick works because, in the process of sequencing a gene, scientists create a synthetic copy. This synthetic copy is chemically the same as the original; it has the exact same sequence of chemical letters that was put together by nature inside your cells. Synthetic copies of genes are routinely created in the lab using very general methods widely used by molecular biologists for decades, methods that were not invented by Myriad Genetics. However, Myriad was first to sequence the BRCA1 gene, and they claimed physical copies of the BRCA1 sequence as their original invention. The result is that nobody can read the sequence of any BRCA1 gene of anyone in America without Myriad’s permission.

THE IDEA OF HAVING your genome Balkanized into small fiefdoms of intellectual property may sound offensive, but do gene patents make any practical difference? Yes and no. If you are worried about your genetic risk for breast cancer and Myriad doesn’t take your insurance, you’re out of luck. Want a second opinion on Myriad’s interpretation of your genetic risk? Nobody is legally allowed to offer one. Aggressively protected gene patents also interfere with basic research focused on studying how genes function and contribute to disease, because they prevent scientists from using basic research tools to study those genes.

(What’s the point of a gene patent, then? Money. Your BRCA1 sequence is important to you, and Myriad wants you to pay them, and only them, for it.)

On the other hand, the era of human gene patents appears to be ending, regardless of what the Supreme Court decides. Myriad Genetics obtained its gene patents at a time when sequencing one gene was a big job; with the same effort today, we can sequence thousands of genes at once. A company that offers to predict your genetic risk for disease by reading only a single gene is going to look shabby compared to competitors that offer to sequence a large fraction of your genome to give you a much more comprehensive estimate of your genetic risk. Gene patents may hold off the competition for a limited time (while also temporarily holding up some basic genetics research and causing anxiety and suffering among patients), but they won’t stop the arrival of a new standard of genetic testing based on low-cost readings of all your genes.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Follow him on Twitter @genologos.

More From Michael White

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be To Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


Follow us


Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be To Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.