Ed. note: Katie is off this week, so Arikia Millikan is guest blogging in her place. Arikia is a Brooklyn-based journalist and former Wired editor who writes about science and technology. She was Nate Silver’s research assistant for the NY Times bestseller The Signal and the Noise.
The Supreme Court is currently hearing a precedent-setting case regarding the patenting of human genes, specifically the two genes that are most closely linked to breast and ovarian cancer. When Myriad Genetics aided in the discovery of BRCA1 and BRCA2, they patented the discovery, securing a monopoly over use of the genes for decades. Now, a group of researchers and medical groups, including the women’s health collective Our Bodies Ourselves, have sued.
The oral arguments boiled down to two key opposing points. The attorney for the Association for Molecular Pathology and other plaintiffs in the case argued that the genes cannot be patented because they are found in nature. The attorney for Myriad Genetics essentially argued that because the company found and isolated the gene, it should be able to patent it. There was a great deal of discussion about this point, with analogies such as whether finding and removing a plant from the Amazon should entitle someone to patent that plant as an “invention.”
In addition to the fact that it makes no sense to claim legal responsibility for human evolution, the ALCU weighed in citing all the practical problems that could result from allowing a pharmaceutical company to patent a human gene. Judy Norsigian from Our Bodies Ourselves summarized the issues as such:
Myriad’s monopoly of the genes prevents others from conducting diagnostic tests on the BRCA genes and from developing alternative tests. This means that there is no way for a woman to know if the test has been done properly, to confirm whether the results are accurate, or to get a second opinion. Because it has no competition, Myriad can charge exceptionally high rates for its testing – currently more than $3,000 – which many women cannot afford, locking out many women who seek the test to determine the best course of action for their treatment.
This comes at a time when our staple tool for screening breast cancer–the mammogram–was found to be hugely flawed. One thing is clear: When it comes to our health, we should have access to every tool in the toolkit and use the best combination along with expert opinion to make educated decisions, and any entities preventing this from happening should be questioned.