The US Supreme Court has begun to hear arguments in a keenly-watched gene patent case involving Myriad Genetics which observers believe could shape the whole future of medical research.

The court is looking at patents that were granted to Myriad on the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 and is reviewing an earlier 2-1 decision by a lower court which stated that those patents are valid. However, this is being challenged by the Association for Molecular Pathology, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which argues that genes are products of nature and cannot be patented, although patents have been issued for over 30 years.

As reported by the Washington Post, Christopher Hansen of the ACLU told the court that the genes themselves, "where they start and stop, what they do, what they are made of, and what happens when they go wrong are all decisions that were made by nature, not by Myriad". He added that "Myriad deserves credit for having unlocked these secrets [but] does not deserve a patent for it".

However the justices expressed their concern about the consequences of not rewarding companies that invest huge sums in genetic discoveries. One of them, Elena Kagan, was reported by the newspaper as saying: “Why shouldn’t we worry that Myriad or companies like it will just say, ‘well, you know, we’re not going to do this work anymore’?”

Myriad argues that it has spent some $500 million to developing its BRACAnalysis test, noting in court materials that the latter "was the product of creative, human ingenuity, resulting in significant new applications for human health that were previously unavailable". It argues that the US patent system means that firms can justify the huge investments required to develop new diagnostics and therapies.__

A decision in the case is expected before July 1.