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Will the Supreme Court Gene Patent Ruling Affect the Autism Community?

Posted by Dan Smith, PhD, Autism Speaks senior director for discovery neuroscience

 

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that simply isolating a human gene does not give an individual, company or organization the right to patent its use. This is a ruling that most researchers and clinicians welcome.

The crux for us is that prior to this ruling, companies held exclusive rights to many genes associated with specific diseases. This included a growing number of autism-related genes. Being able to test for these genes is important for guiding diagnosis and treatment.

But if a company wanted to put together a diagnostic panel of autism genes, it would have to seek permission and pay licensing fees to each company owning one of those genes. This slowed down development and raised the price of gene testing. It also had the potential to slow and increase the cost of important research into the causes and treatment of autism.

However, the Supreme Court also ruled that a company could hold a patent to a type of synthetic gene called complementary DNA, or c-DNA. Many gene tests use this modified form of DNA. So the effect of the Supreme Court ruling remains less than clear cut.

In addition, while the Supreme Court ruling may reduce costs for existing diagnostic gene tests, it may reduce the incentive for companies to develop new gene tests. They may find themselves facing a less certain return on their research investment

As many of you know, Autism Speaks has taken a leading role in the discovery of genetic risk factors for autism. This includes our ground-breaking collaboration with BGI to sequence the complete genomes of 10,000 individuals with autism. We are doing so to better understand the genetic causes of autism and help guide research and treatment. We want you to know that we do not seek to patent or limit the use of these findings. Our sole purpose is to develop a database that will serve researchers, physicians and the entire autism community.

Read more about Autism Speaks Genetics and Genomics programs here.