BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 29, 2019: NIH NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH sign emblem seal on gateway center entrance building at NIH campus. The NIH is the US's medical research agency.

Will NIH Learn from Myriad when Settling Its mRNA Inventorship Dispute with Moderna?

By Jorge L. Contreras

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is currently embroiled in a dispute over the ownership of patent rights to Moderna’s flagship mRNA COVID-19 vaccine (mRNA-1273).

The NIH, which funded much of Moderna’s research on the COVID-19 vaccine, should be assertive in exerting control over the results of this taxpayer-funded research. Failing to do so would be a missed opportunity for the public sector to have a say in the distribution and pricing of this critical medical technology.

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Concept illustration of DNA and genes.

The Civil Rights Challenge to Gene Patenting

By Jorge L. Contreras

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched a unique lawsuit against Myriad Genetics, challenging fifteen claims of seven patents covering various aspects of the BRCA1/2 genes and their use in diagnosing risk for breast and ovarian cancer. In mounting this case, the ACLU assembled a coalition of lawyers, scientists, counselors, patients and advocates in an unprecedented challenge not only to one company’s patents, but the entire practice of gene patenting in America. And, against the odds, they won. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics that naturally occurring DNA sequences are not patentable, a ruling that has had repercussions throughout the scientific community and the biotechnology industry.

In The Genome Defense: Inside the Epic Legal Battle to Determine Who Owns Your DNA (New York: Hachette/Algonquin, 2021), I describe the long road that led to this unlikely Supreme Court victory. It began in 2003 when the ACLU hired its first science advisor, a Berkeley-based cellist and non-profit organizer named Tania Simoncelli. At the ACLU, Simoncelli’s job was to identify science-related issues that the ACLU could do something about, from DNA fingerprinting to functional MRI brain imaging. A couple of years into the role, Simoncelli mentioned gene patenting to Chris Hansen, a veteran ACLU litigator who had been involved in cases covering mental health to school desegregation to online porn. At first, Hansen didn’t believe her. How could a company patent something inside the human body? But Simoncelli persisted, showing him articles and statistics demonstrating that, by 2005, more than 20% of the human genome was covered by patents. The realization led to Hansen’s oft-quoted exclamation, “Who can we sue?”

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Introducing New Contributor Jorge Contreras

Jorge Contreras.Jorge Contreras is joining Bill of Health as a regular contributor.

Jorge L. Contreras is a Presidential Scholar and Professor of Law at the University of Utah with an adjunct appointment in the Department of Human Genetics. His research focuses on intellectual property, technical standards and science policy, and he is one of the co-founders of the Open COVID Pledge, a framework for contributing intellectual property to the COVID-19 response. Professor Contreras is the editor of six books and the author of more than 100 scholarly articles and chapters appearing in scientific, legal and policy journals including Science, Nature, Georgetown Law Journal, NYU Law Review, Iowa Law Review, Harvard Journal of Law and Technology and Antitrust Law Journal.  He has served as a member of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Council of Councils, the Advisory Councils of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), and as the Co-Chair of the National Conference of Lawyers and Scientists. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School (JD) and Rice University (BSEE, BA).