Australian gene patent challenge fails


An Australian court on Friday dismissed a challenge against the patenting of human genetic material in a landmark case that a cancer group says could stifle research.

The case hinged on whether a patent can be granted to cover naturally occurring nucleic acids, the building blocks of DNA — in this case the so-called breast cancer gene BRCA1.

Federal Court Justice John Nicholas rejected the argument that BRCA1, a genetic mutation associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer in women, could not be patented because it is a naturally occurring substance. He ruled instead in favor of the two medical research companies that hold the patent, U.S.-based Myriad Genetics and Melbourne-based Genetic Technologies Ltd.

“There is no doubt that naturally occurring DNA and RNA as they exist inside the cells of the human body cannot be the subject of a valid patent,” his judgment concluded. DNA and RNA are types of nucleic acid.

“However, the disputed claims do not cover naturally occurring DNA and RNA as they exist inside such cells. The disputed claims extend only to naturally occurring DNA and RNA which have been extracted from cells obtained from the human body and purged of other biological materials with which they were associated.”

The decision is the first in Australia to consider whether isolated DNA or RNA sequences can be patented.

Lawyers for Cancer Voices Australia, which brought the case, have argued it raises ethical issues about the commercialization of the human body.

Cancer Voices Australia said the case was for the benefit of all people with diseases with genetic markers.

“We think that is it very important that information about people’s genes (and) genetic makeup be freely available to researchers, not only in Australia, but around the world,” Cancer Voices’ John Stubbs told ABC.