Let Me Have My Genes Back!

brca_trialMyriad Genetics owns the rights to some of my DNA – the BRCA 1and 2 genes.  The genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.  By owning the patent on these genes, the company not only has a monopoly on the test for the mutations, which costs about $3000, but also has the right to prevent anyone else from studying, testing, or even looking at the BRCA genes.

And this isn’t the only part of my DNA “owned” by industry or academic centers – apparently 20% of our DNA has already been patented.  This is absurd.  Scientific progress should not be sacrificed so a few people can make a buck.  And those at risk of medical disease should not be at the mercy of monopolized prices for the medical tests they need.

Fortunately, the patenting of the BRCA genes, and of genes in general, is being challenged in the court system.

A federal district court ruled last week that patients and scientists can challenge patents on human genes in court, allowing a lawsuit challenging patents on BRCA 1 and 2 to go forward.

The lawsuit was originally filed in May by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT).  They say that the patents are illegal and restrict both scientific research and patients’ access to medical care.  They also assert that patents on human genes violate the First Amendment and patent law because genes are “products of nature.”

The defendants, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Myriad Genetics, and The University of Utah Research Foundation, had asked the court to dismiss the case but the November 2 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York will allow the case to go forward.

Association for Molecular Pathology, et al. v. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, et al., was filed on behalf of 20 breast cancer and women’s health groups, individual women, geneticists and scientific associations representing approximately 150,000 researchers, pathologists and laboratory professionals.  Several major organizations, including the American Medical Association (AMA), the March of Dimes and the American Society for Human Genetics (ASHG), filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the lawsuit.

“We hope this challenge is the beginning of the end to patents on genes, which limit scientific research, learning and the free flow of information,” said Chris Hansen, a staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group. “No one should be able to patent a part of the human body.”

An ACLU video on the case:

I doubt I have this mutation.  Though I was diagnosed with breast cancer before 50, I don’t have any relatives with breast or ovarian cancer.   But I’ll be rooting for the plaintiffs in this case so that those who are at risk can have a fair price for the test, can get a second opinion if they want, and researchers will be free to study the genes and perhaps find ways to interrupt the family history of breast cancer in these families.

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  • Joy Simha  On November 10, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    This is such an important issue. It is scary that they can patent genes. I too am pretty sure that all of us have some genetic predisposition to some funky disease and it is just downright frightening that companies can “own” the rights to these genes. Thanks for blogging.


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