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The Angelina Jolie Connection: The Debate Over Patenting Human Genes

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From the star's op-ed in the New York Times all the way to the Supreme Court, the debate over human gene patents is heating up.

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Yesterday, Angelina Jolie published an op-ed in the New York Time entitled "My Medical Choice," in which she explained her decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy, having her breasts removed and replaced with implants over the course of three months of medical procedures. Jolie's mother had died of breast cancer at the age of 56, and she knew she had inherited the same risk: an 87% chance of developing breast cancer and a 50% risk of developing ovarian cancer. Her procedure reduced the risk of breast cancer to under 5%.

How did she know she was at risk? Jolie had been tested for the "faulty" gene BRCA1 and the test came back positive. By whom was she tested? The molecular diagnostic company Myriad Genetics (NASDAQ:MYGN). How do I know this? Because Myriad owns a patent for the BRCA1 gene (as well as the BRCA2 gene), and therefore, has exclusive rights to test for it (though the patents expire in about two years). Because of the patent and its protection of exclusivity, the company charges over $3,000 for the test.

Not surprisingly, Myriad's stock price saw a 4% increase yesterday. Jolie was drawing attention to breast cancer prevention and to this new and powerful tool that only one company holds the rights to. But in her op-ed, she writes, "It has got to be a priority to ensure that more woman can access gene testing and lifesaving, preventative treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live." If more companies are able to offer the test, then of course the price will go down, but only an invalidation of the patent law will allow other companies to offer the test. So continues the debate over whether companies should be able to patent human genes.

The following is a story I wrote in March about this debate: The Case of Myriad Genetics: Should Companies Own Patents on Human Genes?

For 30 years, companies have been patenting human genes. Yes, the very genetic material of our bodies, of our DNA, albeit in isolated forms. For longer than that, debates have been incessant -- in the scientific community, between businesses, and in the courts -- over whether or not this practice is legal, let alone ethical. Earlier this month, an Australian court heard yet another case about the legality of gene patenting, ultimately defending the practice. This spring, media attention over the controversy will shift back to the US as a similar case (originally heard in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York) will be heard by the Supreme Court.

Last month, the Australian Federal Court ruled that isolated genetic material is patentable in Australia because the isolation involved requires skills and expertise that make it akin to manufacturing a product. In other words, the court ruled that human genes, if successfully isolated from their natural state, may rightfully be patented -- in this case, by Myriad Genetics . The company holds patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which have been linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. The patent means that Myriad Genetics -- and the Australian company it licenses the patents to, Genetic Technologies (OTCMKTS:GNTLF) -- have the exclusive right to run expensive tests for these particular genes, which is what caused Cancer Voices Australia and a breast cancer survivor named Yvonne D'Arcy to file a suit against Myriad Genetics. The case's outcome is good news for Myriad, but this spring, the US Supreme Court will hear a case on gene patenting and determine whether this practice is legal or not in the USA. The outcome could have very wide-reaching implications.
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