You might have heard that a Federal court invalidated seven patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2, collectively known as "the breast cancer genes", earlier this week. It is, to quote our Vice President, a big fucking deal.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a story for MSN.com about women who were faced with the decision to be tested for faulty versions of those two genes. If tests showed the women had mutations that were likely to lead to breast cancer, the decisions became even more complicated. Everyone handled it differently, but they were all happy to have the choice. Unfortunately, that choice was very expensive, one expert told me, largely because Myriad Genetics owned patents on the naturally occurring genes and, effectively, had a monopoly on testing. The monopoly also meant women couldn't get a second opinion, so to speak, because there was only one lab doing the tests.
Patents like this are nothing new. But, according to United States District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet ...
the patents were "improperly granted" because they involved a "law of nature." He said that many critics of gene patents considered the idea that isolating a gene made it patentable "a 'lawyer's trick' that circumvents the prohibition on the direct patenting of the DNA in our bodies but which, in practice, reaches the same result."
That's from a fabulous story by New York Times' reporters John Schwartz and Andrew Pollack. If you want to understand what's at stake in this case, why Monday's decision was so unexpected and what's up with the legal history on gene patents, this story is a great jumping-off point.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.