Angelina Jolie recently announced her decision to have preventive bilateral mastectomies. This decision was made due to her mother’s medical history and her own results from a BRCA test that showed her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer were high.
The BRCA test that helped her decide costs about $4,000 and can only be performed by one company called Myriad. The company holds an exclusive patent preventing others from researching the gene or developing an alternative test for second opinions.
Jolie’s actions have brought attention to a complex avalanche of issues. Issues that reflect the technology of our time, about what women should do if they were faced with the same decision, and the distance we still have to go in breast cancer prevention and treatment.
Currently Myriad is in court to defend their exclusive rights to testing of the BRCA gene. The patent permits them to have a monopoly for BRCA testing, limiting the options of women seeking answers about their medical care.
Additionally, the patent prevents others from doing further research on the BRCA gene to see how it affects other genes in the body in relation to other diseases.
The first court case began in 2009, and was decided against Myriad, invalidating their patent claims. Then, after rounds with the U.S. Court of Appeals, it was ruled in favor of Myriad, allowing a human gene to be patented, overthrowing the earlier decision. (1)
Now the case is in the Supreme Court. A final decision is expected by summer 2013 to answer this question -- Can genes, which are products of nature, be patented? (2)
This case is thought to be a pivotal one for the future of health care for everyone, as it will decide whether in the future, single genes can be patented.
On the one hand, all companies want and should be compensated for taking the risks to develop tests and treatments for disease. Innovation and motivation comes from this financial reward. We want companies to push themselves and spend the years it takes to produce solutions that can become cures.
On the other hand, we recoil at the idea that a company can own a piece of naturally occurring life.