Current Genetics Update: The Supreme Court, DNA collection and gene patents

In the past several weeks, the US Supreme Court has issued two major decisions that impact the field of personal genetics.  First, the Court rules that human genes cannot be patented.  The case involved the patents on the BRCA 1 and 2 genes, the very same genes in the news recently thanks to Angelina Jolie’s decision to share the news that she had a double mastectomy in light of carrying a BRCA mutation.  It was a unanimous decision, 9-0.  From the Washington Post:

“ Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court, said that merely isolating those specific genes — BRCA1 and BRCA2 — was not worthy of a patent. The decision was a departure from decades of decisions to the contrary from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

“Myriad did not create anything,” Thomas wrote. “To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention.”

He added that “groundbreaking, innovative, or even brilliant discovery does not by itself” overcome the fact that “laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas” are beyond the domain of patent protection.” “

More reading on the case from PBS and The New York Times.

For a very detailed discussion of the case, we recommend the SCOTUS blog’s coverage.

The Court also ruled that DNA can be collected from people arrested for “serious crimes”.   This was a sharply divided, 5-4 split decisions, in which there was deep disagreement from the dissenting Justices. 

From NPR:

“ The court’s decision came in the case of Alonzo King, arrested in Maryland for menacing a crowd with a gun in 2009. Police took a DNA swab from his cheek and sent the DNA to a national database, where it showed a match to a rape six years earlier. King was subsequently tried for and convicted of the rape, but the conviction was thrown out on grounds that there was no warrant and no individualized suspicion that justified taking the DNA sample.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court restored the conviction, comparing such DNA sampling to photographing and fingerprinting suspects when they are booked.”

Scalia, writing for the minority,  argues that taking a DNA sample of an arrestee doesn’t actually aid in any sort of suspect identification since it takes weeks to process, and that taking DNA in fact is a violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights, which guards against unlawful search and seizure.  Jennifer Wagner, writing for Genomics Law Report has a very detailed explanation of the case.  Students and others looking for a shorter summary of the issues might appreciation CNN’s coverage, ” DNA swab after arrest is a legitimate search”.