The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday morning that natural human genes can’t be patented, striking down patents held by Myriad Genetics. A potential beneficiary: women who carry the BRCA1 gene, the gene Angelina Jolie carries that significantly increases your risk of breast cancer and led her to get a preventive double mastectomy, and which Myriad had a patent on. With more competition, the high costs for testing for that gene could be reduced.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes linked to breast cancer which Myriad Genetics patented in 1997 and 1998; Myriad markets tests for those BRCA genes. A defect in BRCA1 causes an average of a 65 percent risk of breast cancer over someone’s lifetime, while a BRCA2 mutation gives a woman a 45 percent chance of breast cancer, according to Stanford. The patent was initially challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and others in May 2009, and lower courts went both ways on it before the Supreme Court’s decision.
As the Atlantic points out, testing for BRCA has been set to be covered under Obamacare, but to date Myriad has held a monopoly on that testing due to their gene patents. Myriad is even mentioned on the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s website, including Myriad’s financial assistance program for those who can’t afford the testing.
Angelina Jolie first announced both the information about her gene and her decision do have both of her breasts removed as preventive treatment in a New York Times editorial. She noted that her mother had died of breast cancer at 56 years old. Jolie had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and 50 percent chance of ovarian cancer, according to her doctors, noting that the increased risk varies from woman to woman.
Jolie also noted in her piece that the testing conducted by Myriad costs more than $3,000 in the United States. Myriad reportedly spent $500 million on the project that led to those patents, according to Yahoo.
Myriad had previously drawn a distinction in a statement, saying that no one’s tried to patent genes in someone’s body. “Rather, Myriad created synthetic molecules of DNA in the laboratory that are used to test patients for increased risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Those synthetic molecules are different from what is found in nature or the human body.”
Here’s who the Susan G. Komen foundation suggests gets tested for the BRCA genes:
- A personal history of breast cancer at age 50 or younger
- A personal history of triple negative breast cancer (breast cancer that is estrogen receptor-negative, progesterone receptor-negative and HER2/neu receptor-negative)
- A personal or family history of male breast cancer
- A personal or family history of bilateral breast cancer (cancer in both breasts)
- A personal history of ovarian cancer
- A parent, sibling, child, grandparent, grandchild, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece or first cousin diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45 or younger
- A mother, sister, daughter, grandmother, granddaughter, aunt, niece or first cousin diagnosed with ovarian cancer
- A family history of both breast and ovarian cancers on the same side of the family (either mother’s or father’s side of the family)
- Ashkenazi Jewish heritage and a family history of breast or ovarian cancer
The Supreme Court’s decision only affects natural DNA; synthetic DNA can still be patented. Thousands of genes have been patented, according to the Hastings Center.