Cancer Lesson #9: Genes can be (and are) patented.
I learned this lesson from the geneticist at my hospital. It seems Myriad Genetics holds the patent to the BRCA genes because Myriad Genetics isolated BRCA1, BRCA2 and several other cancer-related genes.
Thus, anyone who wants to find out if they carry BRCA1 or BRCA2 has their blood sent to the Myriad Labs for analysis. No other lab in the country is licensed to perform the procedure.
The test is not cheap. A recent Huffington Post article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/14/human-gene-supreme-court_n_3081399.html) gives the cost as $3,440.
Still, many women, including myself, choose to have the test performed. (I was lucky. Our insurance covered the bulk of the cost.) Knowing whether or not you carry the gene can have a vast impact on your course of treatment. The results can also warn family members of the need for extra vigilance.
Myriad isn’t the only company to own the rights to genes. The same Huffington Post article says the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted patents on more than 4,000 genes.
I still find this hard to believe. Yes, the world we live in is a mercenary one, and money can serve as a powerful motivator driving research forward. It’s only fitting that profit should be reaped from the money poured into research work. But patenting genes just doesn’t seem right.
I’m not the only one who believes this. Recently the ACLU and the Public Patent Foundation brought suit against Myriad, arguing that genes are naturally occurring substances and therefore can’t be patented. Their supporters include the American Medical Association, the March of Dimes and other scientists. In Myriad’s corner are the Biotechnology Industry Organization and several other industry groups.
The suit has reached the Supreme Court and will be decided this summer. Their decision could affect all of us.
- Human Gene Patentability Case Heads To Supreme Court (huffingtonpost.com)
- U.S. top court weighs patentability of human genes (news.yahoo.com)
- Patent challenge to Myriad Genetics starts at Supreme Court (medcitynews.com)
- Question over human gene ownership before U.S. Supreme Court (cbc.ca)
- Outlaw Human Gene Patents – Why this Supreme Court Case is so Important to Us (a4bc.wordpress.com)