Gene Patenting

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Some time ago, companies started patenting human genes.

Patents on two breast cancer genes, which everybody has, are owned by Myriad Genetics. The company controls the tests given to women to see if they carry mutations on the genes that may predispose them to breast or ovarian cancer, and the research related to the genes.

How can anyone own our genes? Up until now, no court has been asked that question. But recently, a federal judge declared that Myriad's patents on the breast cancer genes are invalid because they patent a part of nature.

You may think that this doesn't matter to you because you don't have breast cancer history in your family. But this decision could have broad implications for research on diseases far beyond breast cancer. More than 4,000 human genes have already been patented. The issues in this case will affect all of us.

Many researchers and companies claim that without patent protection, there are no incentives to develop new treatments, and research will be delayed. But in this case, the opposite is true.


Some people can't afford Myriad's $3,000 test, but there is no other test on the market. Other people have results from the test that are ambiguous. They know they have a mutation, but they don't know what it means for their cancer risk. But Myriad will not let researchers study the genes. So, for both these groups of people, the patents are inhibiting, not promoting health.

Ambiguous gene test results are most often found in women who are not white. So, once again, the worst impact of health policy -- the policy to allow genes to be patented -- falls on the people most likely to have the worst breast cancer outcomes.

Myriad will appeal. The case will probably end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. We may have to wait for our genes to be returned once again to their rightful owners -- us.

With a Perspective, I'm Barbara Brenner.