U.S. reverses stance on genes and patents

In a continuing courtroom drama, the federal government filed a brief on Friday saying that genes should not be patentable because they are a part of nature. The New York Times says the position, a new one for the feds, "could have a huge impact on medicine and on the biotechnology industry."

At the center of the case is Myriad Genetics, a small Salt Lake City company, which is appealing a March decision by a New York judge that seven Myriad patents related to breast and ovarian cancer are invalid. The U.S. Justice Department's legal brief changed longstanding federal policy and sided with the New York judge.

"We acknowledge that this conclusion is contrary to the longstanding practice of the Patent and Trademark Office, as well as the practice of the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies that have in the past sought and obtained patents for isolated genomic DNA," the brief says.

The NYT reports that it is unclear whether this represents a new policy that will be put into effect by the Patent Office. If so, protests from biotech companies would likely follow.

"It's major when the United States, in a filing, reverses decades of policies on an issue that everyone has been focused on for so long," Edward Reines, a patent attorney who represents biotechnology companies, tells the Times.

Biotech patent blogger Kevin Noonan is highly critical of the Justice Department's qualifications for reaching this opinion and notes that there are no voices coming from the Patent Office.

- read the Patent Docs blog post here
- read the NYT report
- see the related discussion on Slashdot
- and look at a PDF of the Justice Department brief, supplied by the NYT