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sillhouette of a woman with superimposed DNA double helix next to "Do Not Patent My Genes" and the ACLU logo

Not so long ago, if you asked someone about the US Patent and Trademark Office’s practice of granting patents on human genes, you’d probably get one of two responses. Biotechnology insiders would shrug — such patents had been standard practice for decades. They were considered a linchpin of the burgeoning genetic-testing industry. Those less intimate with the inner workings of biotech often had a different reaction: “But that’s just … wrong,” said lawyer Chris Hansen. “Who can we sue?”

In 2009, Hansen, a veteran of civil-rights cases at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York City, embarked on a lawsuit that ended gene patenting in the United States. The effort seemed doomed, yet Hansen went on to win at the US Supreme Court, challenging the very idea of what patents are and what they should do.

The unexpected twists and turns of that case — as well as its impact on medicine, and particularly on the lives of women affected by breast and ovarian cancer — are ably and affectingly detailed in The Genome Defense. Its author... see more