(CBS News) There was a groundbreaking ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday. The justices ruled unanimously that biotech companies may not patent human genes. However, genes in the lab may be patented.
In research labs Thursday, they celebrated the court's decision.
"It's a great day for genomic liberty," said Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.
Mason was an expert witness in the case. He said the patents restricted scientists' ability to do important research.
(Watch CBS News chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford break down the case at left)
"If you just had these patents, you'd have to hold your hands over different parts of these and say, 'I can't look here. I can't look here, or these are prevented,'" he said, gesturing toward a computer display of genes.
"Imagine you wanted to write a book as an author, but you couldn't use the word 'the.' It would be as difficult to look through all of your DNA and try to find a gene that didn't have at least one patent on it," Mason said.
By one estimate, more than 3,500 patents are held on naturally occurring gene sequences by pharmaceutical giants like Amgen, Genentech and GlaxoSmithKline.
Bio, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, called Thursday's court's ruling "a troubling departure" that "could create business uncertainty."
But the American Medical Association called it a "clear victory for patients."
"We should not hold hostage the best medical care just so someone can make a profit. We value lives more than we value profit," Mason said.
After falling sharply Wednesday, most biotech stocks actually rallied Thursday, in part because the ruling still protects patents on synthetic or artificial DNA, a big profit center for many biotech companies.