U.S. Supreme Court: Human genes cannot be patented

US Supreme Court

2010 US Supreme Court Class Photo Pictured - bottom row (left to right) - Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, John G. Roberts, Jr. (Chief Justice), Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Top row - (left to right) Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel Alito, Jr., Elena Kagan

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by Chris Patterson

(CNN) -- The Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that human genes cannot be patented.

But in something of a compromise decision, all nine justices said while the naturally occurring isolated biological material itself is not patentable, a synthetic version of the gene material may be patented.

The case involves Utah-based company Myriad Genetics, which was sued over its claim of patents relating to two types of biological material that it identified -- BCRA-1 and BCRA-2, whose mutations are linked to increased hereditary risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

Since Myriad owns the patent on breast cancer genes, it is the only company that can perform tests for potential abnormalities.

Investors in Myriad appear pleased with the ruling; the stock is up 6%, and has been up as much as 9%.

At issue is whether "products of nature" can be treated the same as "human-made" inventions, allowing them to be held as the exclusive intellectual property of individuals and companies.

On one side, scientists and companies argue patents encourage medical innovation and investment that saves lives. On the other, patient rights groups and civil libertarians counter the patent holders are "holding hostage" the diagnostic care and access of information available to high-risk patients.

The high court has long allowed patent protection for the creation of a new process or use for natural products. Whether "isolating" or "extracting" genes themselves qualifies for such protection became the issue.

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