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Who Owns Your Genes?

Posted Apr 16 2013 11:42am

As a m myriad.jpg utation carrier of the BRCA2 gene I am tuned into the case going before the US Supreme Court this week as to whether human genes can be patented .  Just repeating those words seems awkward and science fiction like.  After all, I hold two US Patents on my scarf design.  I can wrap my  head (no pun intended) around that notion but to think a company can patent my genes?  The awarding of patents on human genes is not a new phenomenon, the US Patent and Trademark Office has been awarding patents on human genes for almost 30 years but the case that is up for debate is very specific to Myriad Genetic Inc’s patents on two genes linked to increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer  (BRCA1 and BRCA2).

Trying to understand the complexity of the case has the Supreme Court justices breaking down the argument to laymen terms by discussing  items like chocolate chip cookies as an example.  Justice Sonia Sotomayor was quoted as saying “if a new way was found to extract the ingredients of a cookie, a company still wouldn’t be able to patent flour, eggs and salt.” She also went on to say that “in isolation, it (gene) has no value, it’s just nature sitting there”.  Myriad definitely gets   kudos for isolating the gene and it’s use but perhaps not the gene itself.

At the crux of the matter is that Myriad is trying to patent an isolated portion of the DNA with “markedly different chemical structure” from DNA within the body.  Opponents fear that If Myriad is able to patent  the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene it may slow down valuable research for life saving measures for those diagnosed with breast cancer.  Myriad argues that without the cash flow that comes from these patents,  that necessary scientific discoveries to combat diseases won’t happen. Then there is the fear that companies like Myriad may one day decide that this isn’t profitable enough for them and abandon that line of work.

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Myriad currently owns the only BRCA gene test.  They developed the BRCA analysis that looks for mutations on the breast cancer predisposition gene (BRCA).  I’ve been told that having this mutation increases my risks of breast, ovarian and other cancers.  This knowledge and my family history of 3 generations of breast cancer, caused me to take a proactive stance with prophylactic surgery.  I’ve not looked back on those decisions and am thankful for that knowledge.

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The Supreme Court will rule on this by the end of the summer.  Surely after this case is debated our Supreme Court justices will feel that they have just completed a crash course in biology!   There is no doubt that I will be following this case with special interest.  How do other BRCA mutation carriers feel about this case?

Susan Beausang

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