Biology in the News Explained

Your genes do not belong to companies, it’s official!

500px-Seal_of_the_United_States_Supreme_Court.svgHere at the Bioblog biology blog there has been fairly extensive coverage of the long case involving Myriad Genetics’ right to patent the BRCA genes, certain mutations of which predispose women (and men) to breast cancer.

As written here before, the Obama Administration had already taken the correct position that no one should be able to patent a product of nature. Delightfully, several companies, including DNATraits and Gene By Gene, Ltd, are already lining up to offer the test for this gene. (Although the price for testing this gene has already dropped 75% as a result of the competition generated by the ruling, look for it to drop a bit further as testing becomes even more widespread, because the true cost of testing is probably less than a couple hundred dollars in time and money.)

Coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning gene patents has been extensive elsewhere, so there is no need for a lengthy pontification here, other than to note that the best discussion of the case that we have seen explaining the history and probable ramifications can be found at the Ecological Society of America.  But it is particularly interesting to see the opinion of Mary-Claire King, the scientist who did most of the work isolating the BRCA genes, using NIH grant money, but who had no association with Myriad Genetics who has been making huge amounts of money off her work:

I am delighted. This is a fabulous result for patients, physicians, scientists, and common sense. When I was working on it from 1974 to 1994, it did not cross my mind that a legal case that would end up in the Supreme Court would be the consequence of my work…Developing multigene panels—one-stop shops for testing for susceptibility to breast and ovarian cancers on many genes—has been a very high priority. The multigene test we developed, called BROCA, has been used for months, but until today we had to mask BRCA1and BRCA2. The Supreme Court ruling removes the illogical situation of being able to test all genes but having to mask some. Multigene tests can now be made available to people by many firms. In fact, I think they were on the market straight after the ruling.

That’s right: before the decision, King could not perform a test for a gene that her lab did all of the real work isolating. So this is a huge win for taxpayer-funded research in academic labs, which has always done the great majority of heavy lifting on tests and techniques that later become appropriated by profit-making private companies. (As a side note, it is unfortunate that the sequester is already having a large impact on funding for basic research, which industry rarely performs in this field due to its long term nature – and which could be irreversible if it goes on too long.  Perhaps when this starts impacting the enormous profits of private companies such as Myriad, our dysfunctional House of Representatives won’t be cheering so hard).

The supremes did leave in the inevitable loophole which will likely preserve patents for genetically modified organisms, but otherwise this decision will open up huge swaths of genetic testing that has either been off limits, or was not pursued due to rampant gene patenting (one of the most egregious aspects of gene patenting is that many companies have been slapping patents on many chunks of DNA sequence for which the function is not even yet known, which has clearly deterred scientific progress, not encouraged it). For example, many markers have been found associated with different cancers, which should start allowing American patients to be tested not only for their prognosis, but for resistance or susceptibility to chemotherapy drugs.  Simple tests doing this are already available in other countries, although unfortunately there are more problems than gene patents which have prevented the availability of these tests in the U.S. But disallowing the ownership of your genes, a no-brainer for everyone except the companies claiming otherwise, is a huge step in the right direction for medical progress.

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