Posted by Bill Sandweg on 09 December 2011.
There was an argument the other day before the Supreme Court of the United States. The justices were called upon to decide how far a company could go in patenting a natural process. Natural processes themselves cannot be patented but applications of those processes can be the subject of patents. The case involves two patents for a test to determine the proper dosage of a medicine based on how the individual patient responds to the medicine. The Mayo Clinic, one of the parties to the suit, argues that the manufacturer is trying to get a monopoly on tests which show how individuals respond to medications. This will be of growing importance in the future as medicine moves toward individualized therapies based on the patient’s genome.
So why should we care? We should care because patents provide a broad protection to the patent holder and allow the patent holder to charge a license fee to anyone who wants to use the patented process. The patent holder can also legally block anyone else from using the patented process. In the cell phone and electronics industries, this has resulted in non-stop, hugely expensive litigation as one company claims its patents are being violated and sues its rivals to make them pay fees for using the patented process. All this raises the cost of your next cell phone. The last thing we need in medicine is for new and promising lines of research which can help us all to be stopped dead in their tracks by the threat of litigation.
There should be fair protection for those who create truly new ideas but that protection should not be so broad that it either prevents legitimate scientific research or makes it so expensive that our health care costs go through the roof.
The case is Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories.