Angelina’s mastectomy story overshadows the Myriad gene patent case

As covered widely in numerous news outlets over the past several weeks (see links and critique by Paul Raeburn at KSJ Tracker), Angelina Jolie recently announced that she had a double mastectomy based on the positive outcome of genetic testing for the BRCA genes, predictive of certain kinds of breast cancer, using test kits developed and patented by Myriad Genetics.  There appears to be widespread admiration for the decision she made, facing significant certainty that she would eventually develop breast cancer.  However, as some have complained, the gene tests from Myriad are enormously expensive, and beyond the reach of some women, because of the monopoly they hold on any testing for the BRCA genes, derived from their patents.  Myriad defends their monopoly by arguing that the BRCA tests are provided free to those who can’t afford it, and are normally covered by insurance.  However, there is a more fundamental issue at stake, that is often overlooked in these stories:  should genes, any genes, be patentable?  Indeed, Myriad Genetics is defending the constitutionality of these patents in a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court (Assoc. for Molecular Pathology v Myriad Genetics), with a ruling expected in the next few weeks.  SCOTUSblog is a huge resource on the arguments (see summary posts by Amy Howe and Lyle Denniston after the initial hearing in the case in April, plus the posts from a symposium on the case held in February).  Also worthy is a recent edition of the WGBH Radio program, Innovation Hub, hosted by Kara Miller, on “Your Genes: Patent Pending.”    

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About Tom Schoenfeld

I am an olfactory neurobiologist who practices his science at Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, MA, in the Department of Biology and Chemistry. I have created "dissectingpublicscience.com" to help educate both my science students and the interested non-scientist about the process of science, by focusing discussions on how science is presented and misrepresented in the public media.
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