Big news today: the Supreme Court has ruled that naturally occurring genes are not patentable.
This is a Big Fucking Deal, as Joe Biden might say. But it’s not as complete a victory as it may seem on the surface. The ruling explicitly excludes cDNA, and notes that the case didn’t address methods, applications of knowledge, synthetic DNA, or alterations of gene sequences that do occur in nature*. Lots of room to negotiate privatization there - indeed, that sentence could be the next “by means of a computer program” in patent law, though it doesn’t have to be so.
This is a ruling that resets the default to unpatentable, as Mike Eisen rightly pointed out on twitter. That’s why it’s big. But it doesn’t close the door, at all, on lots of patents in and around DNA*. That’s why the biotech stock index is up today*.
I’m actually not nearly as interested in those parts of the ruling though. What this means for me is more that the biggest barrier to building a commons of mutations with diagnostic potential is gone: the inability of DTC sequencing companies like 23andme to reveal the status of its customers to its customers because of patents. The companies that rely on these patents now have to move to trade secret approaches, as Myriad already has done, and the thing about trade secrets is…we can compete with them.
What the patents did was make it impossible, illegal, for us to build commons-based competition. They were enforcers on trade secrecy. Those enforcers are gone. We can now go straight to the citizen and say, get yourself genotyped, and donate your data to science.
At Sage Bionetworks, my non-profit employer, we’ve built a system that allows precisely that. It’s called Portable Consent, and we’ve got a study called the Self-Contributed Cohort for Common Genomics Research. You can enroll and donate your data in less than ten minutes, start to finish.
So go get yourself genotyped. Download your data. And donate it to science. Let’s stop fighting companies that privatize, and start competing with them.
Note: edited post at 12:15PM EST for clarification of a few points. Those sentences carry asterisks at the end.