Killing Gene Patents Could Revitalize Biotech

Daniela Hernandez | Wired | June 14, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling that naturally occurring genes can’t be patented looks, on the surface, like terrible news for biotech companies. It would appear to strike down thousands of patents claiming intellectual property rights over isolated genetic sequences—the very DNA patents that anchor countless business plans.

There’s a reason investors rejoiced over a decision that, superficially, seems to strip so many companies of their most valuable assets. John Wilbanks, chief commons officer at Sage Bionetworks, says that competitive advantage comes not from the DNA data itself but from the ways companies figure out to use it.

“It’s clearly not as terrifying a ruling for the industry compared to what it could have been,” Wilbanks said. “It’s a decision that says that data is free, and that’s in line with what patent law has always said, which is that you can’t patent data. That’s what a gene sequence is.

Thursday’s ruling should make it easier for companies, researchers and special-interest groups to share genetic data and build open databases of genomes to improve and develop new applications in fields like health care and agriculture without fear of getting slapped with a patent-infringement lawsuit.