WASHINGTON — Isolated human genes may not be patented, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Thursday. The case concerned patents held by Myriad Genetics, a Utah company, on genes that correlate with increased risk of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
The patents were challenged by scientists and doctors who said their research and ability to help patients had been frustrated. The particular genes at issue received public attention after the actress Angelina Jolie revealed in May that she had had a preventive double mastectomy after learning that she had inherited a faulty copy of a gene that put her at high risk for breast cancer.
The price of the test, often more than $3,000, was partly a product of Myriad’s patent, putting it out of reach for some women. The company filed patent infringement suits against others who conducted testing based on the gene. The price of the test is expected to fall because of Thursday’s decision.
This week, news reports headlined that Angelina Jolie’s aunt died from breast cancer. Watching “Entertainment Tonight” yesterday, my husband and I saw graphs and images of Jolie’s maternal family tree back to her great-great grandmother, tracked by an investigative journalist. We saw images of death certificates and who signed them. I was wondering why, with all of this incredibly deep, highly researched, investigative coverage we never hear anything about the terribly creepy story of who owns the BRCA gene. That’s right, owns it. The “breast cancer gene” mutation that Jolie tested positive for, a discovery that made her decide to undergo a double mastectomy, is the property of a corporation called Myriad Genetics.
Breast Cancer Action opposes human gene patenting. We believe it’s wrong for the government to give one company the power to dictate all scientific and medical uses of genes that each of us has in our bodies. We urgently need more and better options for the treatment and risk reduction of breast cancer, and we cannot afford to have progress stymied by the monopolies that gene patents create.
How did I get the story about the BRCA gene amidst all the Jolie coverage? From CNN, the New York Times, an entertainment show? No, from a Tweet on Peggy Orenstein’s feed:
Myriad genetics OWNS BRCA gene. OWNS it. That’s a block to research & better options for someone like Angelina Jolie
Here’s something else we don’t hear about breast health that I learned from Orenstein’s blog:
I find that when I tell my friends that my reconstructed breast is numb they are shocked: they had no idea that would be so.
I’ve blogged before that breasts are secondary sex characteristics, but we hardly think of them that way any more in this culture. The value of breasts seems to be mostly the aesthetic and sexual pleasure of men. Almost as an afterthought, we realize that breasts exist to nurture babies. But what about recognzing that breasts are there for the sexual pleasure of women? Fake breasts are often numb breasts, and if you think about it, that’s about as asexual as you can get.
Last night, “Entertainment Tonight” showed images of Jolie’s two biological daughters, Shiloh and Vivienne, reporting that medical experts advise they get tested for BRCA at age 18. I hope Jolie works to give her daughters better options, continuing to speak out about the issues around breast health, and the problems that occur when a government allows a corporation to own genes. Americans need to know about it.