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Health Highlights: April 16, 2013

U.S. Supreme Court Grapples With Gene Patent Questions Chinese Boy Infected With New Bird Flu Shows No Symptoms

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

U.S. Supreme Court Grapples With Gene Patent Questions

At a hearing Monday, members of the U.S. Supreme Court expressed doubts that a gene could be patented but also questioned if a decision to prohibit such patents would hinder medical and genetic research.

The court was hearing arguments in a case involving patents held by Utah-based Myriad Genetics on genes linked with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The justices are being asked to consider whether isolated genes are "products of nature" that cannot be patented or "human-made inventions" that are eligible for patent protection, The New York Times reported.

"Why would a company incur massive investment if it cannot patent?" asked Justice Antonin Scalia, while Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that an isolated gene was "just nature sitting there."

The justices attempted to simplify the difficult legal and scientific questions before them by using analogies such as the production of baseball bats, making chocolate chip cookies or finding plants with medicinal qualities, The Times reported.

American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Christopher Hansen told the court that Myriad deserved credit for its work, but not a patent. "What exactly did Myriad invent?" Hansen asked. "The answer is nothing."

Gregory Castanias, a lawyer for Myriad, argued that the genes patented by the company do not occur in nature and were isolated through research.

The court's decision could have a major impact on scientific research and medical testing in the country. It may affect thousands of patented genes along with medicines, vaccines and genetically modified crops, The Times reported.


Chinese Boy Infected With New Bird Flu Shows No Symptoms

A newly diagnosed case of bird flu in a 4-year-old boy who has no symptoms is adding to knowledge about the outbreak in China.

The boy in Beijing tested positive for the H7N9 virus and is considered a carrier of the strain. Officials said Monday that the boy has been placed under observation to see if he develops symptoms, the Associated Press reported.

The boy's infection was detected during a check of people who had contact with a 7-year-old girl who on the weekend was confirmed as Beijing's first case of H7N9. A neighbor of the boy bought chicken from the girl's family.

The boy's case "is very meaningful because it shows that the disease caused by this virus has a wide scope. It's not only limited to critical symptoms. There can also be slight cases, and even those who don't feel any abnormality at all. So we need to understand this disease in a rational and scientific way," Beijing Health Bureau Deputy Director Zhong Congpo said at a news briefing, the AP reported.

So far, the outbreak has caused 63 confirmed infections and 14 deaths in China.


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