Shobita Parthasarathy's work cited in landmark gene patent case ACLU v. Myriad Genetics

April 2, 2010

A New York District Court judge cited a University of Michigan expert's research this week in a landmark case invalidating patents on the BRCA genes, which are linked to increased susceptibility for breast and ovarian cancer.

In ruling the patents invalid because the genes are "products of nature," Judge Robert Sweet extensively cited a declaration in support of the plaintiff's case from Shobita Parthasarathy, assistant professor at U-M's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

Parthasarathy, co-director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, is an expert in the politics of science and technology, particularly genetics and biotechnology.

This ruling calls into question the 2,000 gene patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in recent decades, as well as patents on other biochemical compositions, including stem cells, which could also be understood as "products of nature."

A coalition of plaintiffs (including scientists, physicians, patients and civil liberties groups) argued that the genes were not only products of nature, but also that they should be considered free speech, and, therefore, protected by the First Amendment. In addition, they charged that the patents stifled innovation and made health care expensive.

Parthasarathy said as this case goes through the appeals process, the ruling has several implications. If gene patents are ultimately invalidated, this could transform the field of biotechnology, she said.

"Although it might negatively affect the fortunes of the biotechnology industry, the traditionally collaborative culture of biomedicine may re-emerge, which will benefit research and health care," she said.

The ruling also may reduce the costs of genetic tests, as providers will no longer have to license gene patents from inventors, she added.

Parthasarathy has written several articles related to this topic and a book titled "Building Genetic Medicine: Breast Cancer, Technology, and the Comparative Politics of Health Care" (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).

[Read Shobita Parthasarathy's court declaration]

[Read United States District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet's 152-page decision]