The Salt Lake Tribune caught some of the courtroom drama going on at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday, as three judges heard arguments for and against the ability of a private company to hold patents on genes. The metaphors were flying fast and furious. Lawyers for the U.S. government asked the judges to imagine a "magic microscope" that could gaze into and through everything in nature. No company, the government lawyers said, should claim ownership over anything seen through such a lens. The attorney for Myriad Genetics, the Salt Lake City-based company at the center of the dispute, argued that to isolate DNA from nature is akin to fashioning a baseball bat out of a tree--something manmade and not of nature and therefore patentable.
"These are the products of molecular biologists, not of nature," said Myriad lawyer Gregory Castanias. "Isolated DNA does not exist in nature and never would exist in nature."
The stakes are high in this case, which is expected to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court no matter which side wins the day in Appeals Court. Myriad is appealing a decision made last year by a New York judge that seven patents related to breast and ovarian cancer are invalid. Late last year, the U.S. Justice Department surprised many experts by deciding to change longstanding federal policy and side with those who believe genes should not be patented.
Aside from The Salt Lake Tribune's excellent on-the-scene reports from court, The Atlantic ran a decent rundown of the far-reaching issues involved with this case. "They are multi-billion dollar questions, the judicially-sanctioned answers to which will have enormous ramifications for the worlds of medicine, science, law, business, politics and religion."