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

Levi Sumagaysay Levi Sumagaysay (4255 Posts)

Levi Sumagaysay is editor of the combined SiliconBeat and Good Morning Silicon Valley. She also helps take care of, the Mercury News tech website. Email: