Owning the Code of Life: Human Gene Patents in America

In 2013, the United States Supreme Court heard the case of Association of Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. The case asked one question: are human genes patentable? Gene patents became commonplace during the biotechnology revolution of the 1980s, but generated a complex web of moral, legal, and biological questions. While some viewed gene patents as necessary in promoting and sustaining innovation, others felt that owning the code of life was morally and legally misguided. This tension played a central role in the early years of the Human Genome Project, and continued as people experienced the challenging consequences of assigning property rights to our shared biology. Several patients with genetic diseases were forced to navigate limited or expensive testing because of a company’s genetic monopoly. Some scientists worried that their research might infringe a patent. When the Supreme Court decided the Myriad trial, ruling that unaltered human genes were not patent-eligible, their decision marked a surprising and historic shift in the relationship between patent law and fundamental biology—but questions and uncertainty about a future without gene patents remain.

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Sarah Schwartz

About Sarah Schwartz

Sarah Schwartz was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She spent her childhood getting lost in redwoods and stories, collecting wood sorrel and novels, and learning how to identify constellations and split infinitives. Dreading that someday she would have to make a career decision between the sciences or writing, she studied both fields at the University of California, San Diego, where she earned her B.S. in Environmental Systems while taking Revelle College’s rigorous Humanities series and as many writing courses as possible. She has worked in laboratories at UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, learning about bacterial aging, natural sunscreens, neonatal hypoxia-ischemia, marine sponge biochemistry, and what to do when you set the ethanol on fire. These experiences fostered her deep respect and appreciation for scientific research and professional scientists; they have also left her eager to keep studying, supporting, and contributing to the natural and physical sciences. Though her primary interests lie in the areas of environmental and human health, Sarah hopes to explore various fields and interdisciplinary challenges, and to generate a broad dialogue about important, exciting science. In her free time, Sarah loves to bake, sing, hike, and obsess about Giants baseball. Thesis: Owning the Code of Life: Human Gene Patents in America