Should You Be Able To Patent Your Genes?

The Supreme Court hears cases of constitutional import that make front-page headlines, but also wrestles with issues that make you stop and think about how the world is changing.  Yesterday the Court heard argument in a case in the latter category, and the issue is whether human genes should be patentable.

The case involves the legality of a patent that one company, Myriad Genetics, holds on genes that can identify an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers.  Myriad uses the patents to test women for mutations that can indicate risk and charges thousands of dollars — typically paid by insurance — for the tests.  Opponents of the Myriad patent, and other human genetic patents, say there is no inventive process involved and the patenting of human genes has impeded research, medical progress, and access to testing.  Myriad and its allies argue that the process of identifying and isolating the genes satisfies the inventive requirement and that disallowing patents on genes would affect billions of dollars in investments and patents on useful things like genetic tests and biotech drugs and vaccines.

At yesterday’s oral argument, the Court’s questions indicated some skepticism about the patentability of human genes and whether they really involve the inventive process that is the focus of patent rights — although lawyers will tell you that drawing conclusions from judicial questions is a risky business.

The issues are intriguing.  If we can target human genes that will allow us to detect and avoid fatal diseases like cancer, we’d like to think that such discoveries would be used for the benefit of all mankind.  At the same time, however, what companies are going to spend billions of dollars going through the laborious process of identifying those genes without some assurance that they will be able to recoup those costs, and a profit besides, through the protections afforded by patent law?   And how much invention should be needed to secure a patent, anyway?  If genes can be patented, should we all pony up the patent application fee and try to patent every gene in our bodies, just to be on the safe side?

The Court will try to answer these questions before this term ends in June.

The Inventor Who Changed Everything — And His Invention

Eugene Polley, 96, died on Sunday.  Few Americans recognize his name, although virtually every American uses his invention on a daily — in some cases, hourly, or even more distressingly frequent — basis.

Polley held 18 U.S. patents, but his crown jewel was the wireless TV remote controller.  In 1955 he invented the Flash-Matic, a gun-shaped, battery-powered device that changed the channel and turned the TV on and off through use of light signals — and the infernal “clicker” was born.  The Flash-Matic was eventually replaced by sonic, infrared, and radio frequency devices, but Polley’s device set the nation firmly on the road to a land where Americans planted their ever-expanding keisters on their sofas and watched TV for hours where their only exercise was the twitch of the thumb muscle needed to change the channel.  He even won an Emmy for his impact on television.

Consider the social consequences of the wireless TV remote controller.  Not only has it served as a crucial enabling device for an increasingly overweight and lethargic population, it has also been the cause of countless family squabbles.  How many wives have been brought to the boiling point by thoughtless husbands who annoyingly change channels repeatedly during commercial breaks — never spending more than a millisecond on the latest showing of  The Shawshank Redemption, which for some reason is always being aired, or any other program as they zip through the dozens of channels offered by modern cable television services?  How many brothers and sisters have fought over control of the clicker, and therefore whether the family watched Glee or Jackass?  And how has the remote controller affected the brains, and shrinking, gnat-like attention spans, of children who have grown up with their thumb on the remote?

Few people can claim to have had such a profound impact on the social conditions of the world around them.  Eugene Polley, R.I.P.