Supreme Court Rulings 2013: SCOTUS' Gene-Patent Decision Is a Major Win For Public Health


This May, Angelina Jolie made waves with a New York Times op-ed detailing her decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy after finding a “faulty” BRCA1 gene.  Pundits, however, were quick to point out the prohibitive cost of this genetic test: more than $4,000. But today, thanks to the Supreme Court, that price is about to come down.

In a unanimous ruling today, the Supreme Court ruled that Myriad Genetics, the genetic-testing company holding patents on the tests on the two genes in play (BRCA1 and BRCA2), could not enforce their patents. To put it simply, Myriad didn’t create those genes, nor did they develop a new procedure by which they isolate these genes, therefore they have nothing to patent.

Sound obvious? It should. The Supreme Court doesn’t often rule unanimously on a case as high-profile as Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. In his to-the-point style, Justice Clarence Thomas' opinion was sure to point out that “groundbreaking, innovative or even brilliant discovery does not by itself satisfy the criteria” necessary to get a patent. However, he made sure to highlight the legitimate ability to patent specific bits of complimentary DNA, a human invention, as well as new methods and applications of genetic research. All told, while the ruling might seem wide, it's completely unsurprising.

After the ruling was handed down, Myriad’s stock first rose sharply but closed down 5.6%t, as the loss of the patent would allow other companies to enter the BRCA-testing market, thereby driving the price of the test down significantly and presumably reducing Myriad’s profits. But as any introductory economics class would tell you, competition in the marketplace is good for the market, and in this case, that market is women looking to identify a heightened risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Reducing the cost of genetic testing should also have wide-ranging financial benefits other than the lower cost to the consumer. Let’s start with insurance premiums: Under the Affordable Care Act, new insurance plans must cover these kinds of tests completely, so lowering their cost should lower premiums, especially for people with some family history of cancer. Those savings would only be multiplied as time goes on, because the extra information provided by these tests may have a significant influence on the number of people who get these cancers. Less cancer means less spending on chemotherapy, surgery, and everything else that comes with treating cancer, including, all too often, death.

I'm afraid that some of the court's other pending high-profile cases won't be so non-controversial — affirmative action, anyone? — but today, thank you, SCOTUS, for this decision.  It’s a win for everybody — that is, everybody except Myriad Genetics.