The US Supreme Court's rejection of natural DNA patent protection could hurt biotech companies, but specialists said it left enough safeguards for the industry to keep innovating.
The court ruled that Myriad Genetics, which sells expensive tests for the genetic markers for cancer, could not claim patents on the DNA it identified in the 1990s to develop the tests.
Some critics said the ruling would inhibit other companies and their financial backers, like venture capitalists, from investing in more genetic sequencing research because they could not patent their discoveries.
"The Supreme Court's decision represents a troubling departure from decades of judicial and Patent and Trademark Office precedent," said Jim Greenwood, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation.
Companies "have long relied on patents on preparations of DNA molecules and other biological chemicals in order to bring innovative, socially beneficial products to the marketplace," he said, calling the United States "now the only developed country to take such a restrictive view of patent eligibility".
"This is a real disappointment," said Kelly Slone, vice-president of the National Venture Capital Association. "Venture capitalists need certainty, and that is what patents provide."
But other analysts said the ruling was narrow enough to avoid stifling genetic sequencing research by pharmaceutical firms, agro-technology businesses and others.
"The court clearly is struggling as it has been for years with striking the right balance," said Michael Shuster, a partner at San Francisco law practice Fenwick & West, and a specialist in biotechnology and intellectual property.
"I think that they understand that the biotech industry is a bright spot for the economy."
He called it "a ruling the industry as a whole can live with."
The Supreme Court justices were clearly sensitive to the case's potential impact.
"Patent protection strikes a delicate balance between creating incentives that lead to creation, invention and discovery and impeding the flow of information that might permit, indeed spur, invention," the justices said.