Angelina Jolie, breast cancer and the gene-patenting question

What’s Angelina Jolie doing on SiliconBeat? Her much-discussed decision to have a double mastectomy, which the actress wrote about in a New York Times op-ed, is putting the spotlight back on an important question that relates to biotech — one that has gone all the way to the Supreme Court — as the Merc’s Lisa Krieger mentioned Tuesday: Should genes be patented?

Jolie wrote that she decided to have her breasts removed because she carries a faulty gene called BRCA 1, and her doctors estimated she had an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer. Jolie found out she carries the gene through a test that costs about $3,000 made by only one company, Utah-based Myriad Genetics, which discovered and has a patent on BRCA 1 and 2.

Myriad’s 20-year patent on the genes has been challenged by a group consisting of researchers, patients and medical groups who say patenting genes limits research and testing. They further argued that genes aren’t inventions, they’re “products of nature.”

“Myriad’s monopoly harms women’s health, impedes cancer research and raises important ethical questions about control over the human genome,” Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, and Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times last month. Among other things, they say Myriad’s control over the genes prevents women from getting a second opinion, and excludes women who can’t afford the tests. Experts say the tests cost only $200 to carry out, NPR reports.

But each of the genes discovered and isolated by Myriad is like “a single grain of sand” hidden in a building as big as the Empire State Building, Gregory Castanias, Myriad’s lawyer, said, according to the NPR article. In other words, Myriad said it did a lot of work. Supporters of gene patents say they give companies an incentive to do potentially life-saving medical research.

The Supreme Court heard the case last month and is expected to rule this summer.


Photo of Angelina Jolie from Associated Press archives


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  • Doug Pearson

    This concept that something that has been discovered, as opposed to invented, can be patented, is downright scary. Not so much because the concept is scary (because it seems so off-the-wall) but because of the very real possibility that the Supreme Court would rule the patent valid.

    How did Myriad get the patent in the first place? I could see them going to the Supreme Court to force the US Pat Off to grant a patent, and, unfortunately, I could see the Supreme Court granting their wish, but I can’t understand why the US Pat Off granted the patent in the first place.

  • Wesley Parish

    I’d like your opinion on this short story I’ve written:

    about a relationship not going anywhere, with an IPR lawyer whose own genes have been patented by her firm, and whose reproductive future is as a result, definitely in jeopardy.

    Share and Enjoy!

  • Carl

    Often in these controversial cases, the real issue is slightly different than what is reported. Not here. Myriad literally wants a patent on the act of looking at something which already exists. This is evident by the fact that Myriad has demanded that labs and doctors stop testing for the presence of this mutation.

    The appeals court referred to changing a function by removing a smaller part from a whole (which IS a valid patent claim, and in fact many drugs are initially made by removing some chemical from a plant which was using it for a different function), which is also false in this case. Myriad is not removing a cancer-causing mutant gene and using it to perform some different function. They aren’t actually doing anything with the gene at all other than using existing DNA sequencing to look for it.

    Myriad is pure scum, and the appeals court judge who fell for this is an idiot.