The US supreme court is due to hear arguments in a case today that could overturn thousands of controversial patents, after a lower court ruled that doctors could infringe a drug company's ownership rights "merely by thinking" about the relationship between two chemicals in the human body.
The case concerns a patent granted in 1990 to scientists at the University of Colorado and Columbia in New York. They discovered that high levels of an amino acid, homocysteine, in the blood or urine tended to be associated with a deficiency of B vitamins. But their patent does not just relate to the test they invented. It asserts their ownership of the idea of correlating the two chemicals - leading to the charge that they have patented a law of nature, rather than a human invention.
"Unfortunately for the public, the Metabolite case is only one example of a much broader patent problem in this country," the bestselling novelist Michael Crichton wrote in the New York Times at the weekend. "We grant patents at a level of abstraction that is unwise, and it's gotten us into trouble in the past."