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Angelina Jolie's Cancer Testing and Corporate Control of Human Genes

The BRCA tests the actress had may be unavailable to thousands because they are held under patents

Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Foreign Secretary William Hague with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Angelina Jolie at the G8 Foreign Ministers meeting in London, 11 April 2013. (Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Actress Angelina Jolie's announcement on Tuesday that she underwent a double mastectomy following genetic testing underscores the broad implications of an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision on whether corporations can own human genes.

Jolie announced that she had a double mastectomy after genetic testing revealed she carried "a 'faulty' gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases [the] risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer."   The mother of six, whose own mother died after a nearly 10-year battle with cancer at 56, made the decision to have the surgery "to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much [she] could."

In an op-ed in Tuesday's New York Times, Jolie writes:

Breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live. The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.

That testing is done only by Salt Lake City-based Myriad Genetics because they own the patents for those genes, patents the ACLU and the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) say are unconstitutional and invalid because "genes are the foundation of life" and should not be under corporate control.  The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing in on that fight.

As we reported,

The defendant in the case Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. is claiming to "own" two genes related to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, BRCA 1 and BRCA 2. Myriad Genetics argues that the genes become their "invention" once they are "isolated," or removed from the cell and therefore they have the right to stop anyone from using these genes, whether for clinical or research purposes.

"The Patent Office's policy of granting companies complete control over portions of our bodies is both morally offensive and a clear violation of the law," said the suit's co-counsel Daniel B. Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT). "Genes are the foundation of life, they are created by nature, not by man, and that is why we were here today at the Supreme Court to make sure they are not controlled by corporations through the patent system."

Thomas Hedges added that Myriad's ownership of the genes "guarantees monopoly control over research into cancer. It discourages many other researchers from exploring treatment, something that could ultimately stunt our capacity for medical advances."  The monopoly also provides insured profits for Myriad.

Jolie references the high cost of the testing, and Ellen Matloff, director of cancer genetic counseling at the Yale Cancer Center, has said:

I think that this patent, which has jacked up the prices and made testing more difficult in many circumstances, may be preventing hundreds and maybe thousands and thousands of people from learning that they are at high risk for these terrible disease.

Yale Alumni Magazine adds:

 “The patenting of genes is probably the one issue that affects every human being in the entire world,” Ellen Matloff says. “Male, female; black, white, Hispanic; sick, healthy—we all have genes. What this will do to the future of medicine is so grave that a few people have to step forward and put their necks out.”

A decision in the lawsuit in expected this summer.


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