"The worst fears of the biotechnology industry have not been realized, and inventions in the field of molecular genetics remain patent-eligible," said Gregory Dolin, co-director for the Center for Medicine and Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

In Maryland, where Gov. Martin O'Malley has made the biotech industry a key component of the state's economic development, the decision could have wide ramifications.

The ruling could prompt potential investors to more carefully scrutinize smaller companies to make sure their projects lead to patentable products, said Judy Britz, executive director of BioMaryland, an office within the state's Department of Business and Economic Development that supports the life sciences industry. But "it's a little bit early to tell how this will impact companies," she added.

Britz said there are roughly 500 life sciences companies in Maryland, employing 34,000 people, and she estimated that up to 30 percent of them have "some element of genomics" and might be affected by the justices' decision.

"The industry might have preferred a ruling that said there should be some value in protecting" the discovery of something like a BRCA gene, Britz said, but companies are also glad that the "long-brewing" issue has been resolved.

"In general, the Supreme Court ruling is clarifying," she said, "and businesses like predictability."

Britz said companies should still be able to protect other aspects of tests or treatments, even if naturally occurring DNA is no longer patentable.

"There are many ways to protect the invention surrounding the gene sequence," said Britz, an immunologist and microbiologist who has taken products through FDA approval to market. "If a company has been smart, they will have anticipated the need to protect not just the gene sequence but the way it is used and the format for delivering it."

The decision was hailed by the ACLU, which had sued Myriad on behalf of patients, researchers and other medical professionals.

"Today, the court struck down a major barrier to patient care and medical innovation," said Sandra Park, senior staff attorney with the group's Women's Rights Project. "Myriad did not invent the BRCA genes and should not control them. Because of this ruling, patients will have greater access to genetic testing and scientists can engage in research on these genes without fear of being sued."

Myriad charges several thousand dollars for the test. The ACLU points to how Myriad refused to contract with the insurance company of one of its plaintiffs because the reimbursement was too low. The woman waited more than a year before getting a grant to pay for the test, and learned that she did have a BRCA mutation.

Tribune Newspapers contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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Supreme Court on DNA

The ruling: Human genes are a product of nature and cannot be patented and held for profit

Potential impact: More options for genetic testing, lower costs