Friday, June 14, 2013

My genomics field trip

Jeanne Loring
On Thursday the U.S. Supreme Court handed down what many are calling a landmark ruling, ruling unanimously that human genes cannot be patented. Experts are calling it a ruling that will change the course of scientific research and medical testing, and one of our stem cell agency grantees was a part of the story. 

Jeanne Loring, PhD, the founding director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at The Scripps Research Institute, was in the Court the day of the hearing back in April, and wrote this first person account of what it was like to witness legal and scientific history. 

The opinions expressed by guest bloggers are those of the author.

On the morning of April 15, I stood in line for hours in the dark, in a drizzling rain...not for a concert or a new movie, but to get a seat in the Supreme Court.

Anyone can visit the Court, but only a few dozen seats are available for the public. For cases that have great social impact, like the recent gay marriage cases, people start lining up on Thursday for the Monday morning session.

The Monday morning case I wanted to see was not so high profile, but people started lining up on the sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court building at midnight on Sunday. The case was "Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc."

Myriad Genetics holds patents on the breast cancer-associated genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. They have prohibited anyone else from doing genetic testing for cancer-causing mutations in these genes. Many of the people in line with me on that wet Monday morning were breast cancer patients who were angry that Myriad had a monopoly on the analysis of their genomes.

The Court was using this case to discuss the larger question: Are human genes patentable?

At about 7:30 a.m., an official handed out numbers to those of us in line. A couple of people came by and offered us $500 for our numbers, but we just laughed.

More lines inside, and threats to evict any of us who wouldn't be quiet in the echoing marble halls. I talked to Jim Watson, who told me about a house party in the Hamptons where he met Justice Scalia. I said hello to Francis Collins and Harold Varmus; they were guests and didn't have to wait outside in the rain.

I loved the court session- the justices continually interrupting the lawyers, searching for the right metaphor to describe DNA...a tree in the jungle? A chocolate chip cookie? The lawyers sitting next to me were passing notes...and I got a reprimand for excitedly leaning forward on the back of the bench in front of me.

In an hour it was over, and it seemed clear that we - those of us who thought genomic DNA shouldn't be patented - felt like it was a victory. I ran into Eric Lander on the front steps, and he was giddy with happiness.

On Thursday the decision was announced, and it was exactly what we'd hoped for. DNA in its natural state - in the genome - is a product of nature and cannot be patented. cDNA and artificial constructs remain patentable. Myriad will have competition, and the price of BRCA diagnostics will go down. There will be no barrier on development of new genomic DNA diagnostics - scientists will be able to study genes without the fear of being sued. It's a great day for science, and I feel so lucky to have been able to see the changes unfold.

Thanks to JP for holding my place in line!

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