Angelina Jolie Surgery Draws Attention to Gene Patent Case

The announcement Tuesday by Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie that she has undergone a preventative double mastectomy is drawing media and public attention to an upcoming Supreme Court case involving the company that patented the breast cancer gene.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Jolie announced she had undergone the surgery after learning she had an 87% risk of developing breast cancer, due to a defective BRCA1 gene. Jolie also plans to undergo ovarian surgery.

Salt Lake City, Utah-based Myriad Genetics obtained patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in 1997 and 1998. The lawsuit, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, was filed in 2009 by the American Civil Liberties Union, and challenges the validity of gene patents in the United States.

The lawsuit states, “Because of the patents, defendant Myriad has the right to prevent clinicians from independently looking at or interpreting a person's BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes to determine if the person is at a higher risk of breast and/or ovarian cancer. Because of the patents and because Myriad chooses not to license the patents broadly, woman who fear they may be at an increased risk of breast and/or ovarian cancer are barred from having anyone look at their BRCA1 and BRCA 2 genes or interpret them except for the patent holder.”

On the ACLU web site, the organization says, “...we have argued that human genes cannot be patented because they are classic products of nature. The suit charges that the gene patents violate the First Amendment and stifle diagnostic testing and research that could lead to cures and that they limit women's options regarding their medical care.

“The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has granted thousands of patents on human genes – in fact, about 20 percent of our genes are patented,” the statement continues. “A gene patent holder has the right to prevent anyone from studying, testing or even looking at a gene. As a result, scientific research and genetic testing has been delayed, limited or even shut down due to concerns about gene patents.”

Peter D. Meldrum, president and CEO of Myriad, said in a press release, “Countless companies and investors have risked billions of dollars to research and develop scientific advances under the promise of strong patent protection.”

Sources: The Atlantic, Wikipedia, Myriad Genetics, ACLU.


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