Today we heard that the Supreme Court unanimously decided that genes can not be patented! This is an important decision for women and men throughout the United States.
In the summer of 2009, a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) contacted me to join researchers, physicians, advocates, and patients in the case against Myriad Genetics. The case contested whether it was legal for Myriad Genetics to patent the mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that increase the breast cancer risk. (These genetic mutations also increase the risk of ovarian cancer and, in men, may also increase the risk of prostate and pancreatic cancers.)
Everyone has the BRCA genes. Only some women and men inherit a genetic mutation that increases cancer risk. Mary Claire King, a researcher working at UC Berkeley in 1990, did most of the work to identify the existence of the BRCA1 mutation. But it was Salt Lake City-based Myriad Genetics, a for-profit company, that developed the genetic test for these mutations, and then went on to patent the genetic mutations themselves. This gave them a monopoly in this country on testing for the mutations, which allowed them to set the price. It also limited the research that could be done on these mutations.
Today’s decision will have far-reaching effects—not only on breast cancer research and treatment but on research into all hereditary diseases. Because of the Supreme Court’s decision, other companies and laboratories can now compete to provide testing, improving the quality of the test as well as reducing the price. In addition, scientists can now do research on all genes and their mutations without fear of being sued. This means we will have a much better chance of identifying other mutations in genes that increase breast cancer risk. It also means that researchers studying other types of cancers and other diseases will not be restricted as to what tests they can do and how they can do them.
Indeed, today’s decision is a victory for people and their doctors throughout the country and all the lawyers, doctors, supporters and advocates who fought against a company’s right to patent, and profit from, a genetic mutation—and indeed there were many of us. Most of all it is a victory for all of us interested in understanding the cause of breast cancer.