In our country's history, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has bestowed coveted protection on many strange and wondrous inventions: the three-legged pantyhose (in case one leg runs), the sealed, circular peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, the motorized ice cream cone.

And of course, a human gene.

A human gene?

How is that even possible? Could you patent a cat's whiskers? A comb-over for a balding man? (Ah, well, yes, there is a comb-over patent out there somewhere.)

The idea that the essence of our biology could be patented in the manner of an alarm clock came as a shock to the many of us who don't follow the legal struggles of the biotech world. Yet gene patents have existed for 30 years.

Until, that is, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared last week that the natural human gene cannot be commercially owned.

Many of us were unaware that this was even a thing until last month, when Angelina Jolie announced she had opted for a double mastectomy after discovering she carries a genetic mutation that gave her an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer and a 50 percent chance of ovarian cancer. She had discovered her risk after taking an expensive test developed by Myriad Genetics, the Utah firm whose gene patents were the subject of the Supreme Court decision.

"The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women," Jolie wrote in the New York Times.

Her mild critique unleashed a whiff of unseemliness about the cost of the test, as many women - especially the uninsured - came forward to say they were at risk but could not afford to take it.

Why is the test so expensive? There's no competition; Myriad has a zealously enforced monopoly.

The very idea that a biotech company could hold a monopoly on a piece of the human genome was offensive to most of us lay folks, even if the purpose was a noble one: a helpful diagnostic test.

Myriad had claimed that by isolating the genes from the rest of the human genome, it had created something outside the realm of the natural world.

Not so, said the court, concurring with geneticists-including a lead researcher on the Human Genome Project - who filed friend-of-the-court briefs.

"A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated," wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the court's opinion.

Nothing "man-made" about it.

The financial stakes are what make the concept worth fighting over. According to Forbes magazine, Myriad spent $500 million over the course of 17 years before it turned a profit on its patented BRACAnalysis test. But the payoff has come. Last year, the company's profit margin was 22.6 percent on revenues of nearly $500 million. More than 80 percent of Myriad's revenue comes from the test.

Myriad, though, despite its groundbreaking and livesaving work, has come off as some sort of villain in the drama.

"A company that is widely regarded as being an efficient laboratory, was a startup that helped discover the genetic cause of two dread cancers and provides a service that allows people at risk to mitigate the risk is nonetheless reviled," wrote geneticists Robert Cook-Deegan and A.L. Baldwin of Duke University last January in the journal Genome Medicine. "This should be a hero story, but is instead a dark narrative."

Why has Myriad ended up with a black eye? The authors say it wasn't the gene patents - lots of companies have them. But in its relentless protection of the patents, the writers said, Myriad acquired a reputation not just for "legalistic bullying" but for obstructing research. Cook-Deegan and Baldwin cited one study that found that to many researchers, "it seemed Myriad was willing to block scientific research to turn a profit."

Among the plaintiffs in the case against Myriad were geneticists who claimed they were forced to stop administering tests to patients, even though they charged less than half of what Myriad charged, and patients who were dismayed they were unable to get second opinions.

Myriad defends itself from those charges on its website and notes that 18,000 scientists have studied the patented genes, and 10,000 scientific papers have been published about them.

Still, it was hard to find anyone who was disappointed by the Supreme Court's ruling. Even Myriad put on a happy face, tweeting: "Now that the Supreme Court battle is over, it's back to the REAL battle - the one against disease!"

Personally, I'm thinking about patenting a four-legged pantyhose.

Robin Abcarian is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers can email her at

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.