When Angelina Jolie announced in The New York Times that she had undergone a double mastectomy because she carries a gene, BRCA1, that increases her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers, it brought many issues to light. She talked about her decision, the procedure and what it meant for her family.
Jolie also noted that more women ought to have access to gene testing, regardless of their income, and she acknowledged, “The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.” Jolie did not mention, however, why the price of this important test is so prohibitive.
Myriad Genetics owns the patent for BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes—not a patent for the test, but a patent for the actual human genes. That means Myriad can prevent anyone from testing, studying or even looking at these genes, and it also holds exclusive rights to mutations along these genes. “Other companies say they could provide a better test for a few hundred dollars, but this monopoly gives Myriad control over research, testing, diagnostics and development of treatments related to the BRCA genes,” writes Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, a national education and advocacy organization.
While Mark C. Capone, president of Myriad Genetic Laboratories, told The New York Times that Myriad has invested $500 million to ensure the success of BRCA testing and that a ton of research and publishing about these genes has been done, it’s also true that more than 80 percent of Myriad’s revenue (their 2012 annual revenue was $496 million) came from BCRA testing in its last fiscal year.
So how can a company patent a human gene? That question is being raised in the Supreme Court right now in the case of Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., and a decision is expected this summer. The issue before the court is this: Are isolated human genes ineligible for patents because they are products of nature, or does the isolation make them sufficiently different from the genes found inside the body’s cells, and thus patentable human-made inventions?
“Behind Jolie’s publicity-grabbing personal story is the fact that one corporation owns the BRCA1 and 2 genes,” writes Jaggar, stressing that most women with breast cancer do not have an inherited genetic mutation. For those who do, though, “access to the genetic test and accompanying genetic counseling, free of corporate influence, provides potentially life-saving information.”
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