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Gene Patenting: Biotech Can Blame Itself for this PR Nightmare

60 Mins on MYGN gene patentsAfter watching the 60 Minutes segment on gene patenting Sunday evening, you could almost hear the groundswell of public support building for the recent New York federal court ruling, which invalidated Myriad Genetics' (MYGN) patents on two genes related to breast cancer and threw about 10,000 other gene patents into question.

Here's a recap of the segment, which you can watch here in its entirety:

  • Interviewer Morley Safer: "A vital part of who you are actually belongs to someone else."
  • Interviewer Morley Safer: "When it comes to inherited breast cancer, it's Myriad [dramatic pause] or nothing."
  • Patient: "No one invented my gene... all they're doing is actually looking at it. It's crazy!" [Shares laugh with Safer].
  • Scientist: "A gene is a natural, living thing. How on Earth can anyone allow patenting of a gene?"
You get the idea. The segment was about as fair and balanced as something you'd see on Fox News. And whose fault is that?

Myriad declined to be interviewed for the segment. I don't know who else shied away, but the only voice defending gene patents was lawyer Kevin Noonan. He bravely tried to explain that patents reward financial risk, and once they expire, those life-saving innovations become available to everyone forever.

But why didn't Myriad explain how much money they've spent developing life-saving diagnostics? Why didn't they produce patient spokespersons who've been saved from cancer and think $3,200 is a pretty reasonable price to pay for it?

It isn't just that they were afraid of 60 Minutes. I wrote an article on gene patenting for BioWorld a few years back, and Myriad wouldn't return my calls, nor would Novartis or any gene patent holders that I tried. And this was for BioWorld, folks. It doesn't get much more industry-friendly than that. If you can't defend your gene patents to BioWorld, then how do you expect to defend them to the broader public?

Myriad may very well win this court case on appeal: I've written before on how gene patents don't actually apply to things in your body, nor do patents on them inhibit the free flow of information. But while the biotech industry may win that battle, it could still lose the war in the court of public opinion. And then what's to stop some grandstanding politician from introducing another anti-gene patenting bill? Such efforts have failed in the past, but we shouldn't take for granted that they always will.