Gene patenting is a touchy subject -- even for lawyers.
On Monday night, dozens of students, faculty, attorneys, venture capitalists and business owners gathered at Stanford Law School for a panel discussion about the gene patenting case Association for Molecular Pathology v. U.S., better known as Myriad, and two related cases, Prometheus v. Mayo (now pending for the second time before the Supreme Court) and Classen v. Biogen.
Speaking for critics who believe patenting DNA is immoral and hurts patients was panelist Daniel Ravicher, the executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, who represents AMP. For the proponents, Edward Reines, a patent litigator at Weil Gotshal & Manges, argued patent protection promotes innovation and the large capital investments needed to develop drugs and diagnostic tools.
Much of their discussion centered on Myriad. In July, a federal appeals court affirmed the right of Myriad Genetics to patent two genes linked to breast cancer, overturning a lower court ruling that threatened a key element of the biotech business. Ravicher announced that he was planning to file a cert. petition with the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday.
But things got heated when Reines argued that Prometheus, not Myriad, is the best case to hash out some of the legal ambiguities related to patenting genes because, he said, it was less emotional. Rather than getting caught up in emotional debates, Reines said, the focus should be on improving personalized medicine so that more people can be effectively treated for diseases such as cancer.
“That’s the future of medicine,” Reines said.
Ravicher countered that there wasn't enough emotion involved in the debate over gene patenting. He then held up photographs of women he claimed had been denied cancer treatment because Myriad Genetics, which had obtained patents on genes that are markers of increased risk for breast and ovarian cancers, refused to license the technology to other laboratories. That made the tests too expensive for many women.
“We’ve lost our moral compass,” Ravicher said.
Worried Ravicher was inciting too much emotion, moderator Mark Lemley, director of Stanford University's program in law, science, and technology and a partner at Durie Tangri, told Ravicher to put the photos down. He refused, and defiantly continued to show several photographs of women.
Meanwhile, Reines sat stone faced, reluctant to enter the fray. And after a few tense moments, the discussion over patenting genes continued without further outburst.