Advances in the field of genetics has made for some exciting medical advances in the past few years. For example, the sequencing of the human genome has led to many medical breakthroughs. Furthermore the availability of more genes and sequences has increased research in the use of gene patterns to silence human tumors and allowed for better classification of tumors and disease. Genetics can also be used to predict a client’s prognosis and potential response to various anti-cancer treatments.
Recently a lawsuit was filed against Myriad Genetics, a gene company that owns a patent on BRCA1 and BRCA2, two genes closely associated with increased risk for breast cancer and ovarian cancer. The patent system gives companies like Myriad the ability to exclusively promote its innovations and allows for substantial research and development investments. The result is that the patent restrictions allows Myriad to restrict others from measuring the risk the gene poses for closely associated cancers.
The New York lawsuit against Myriad was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of the plaintiffs. The case blends medical science, patent law, breast cancer, activism and an unusual civil liberties argument that could make this case a landmark.
While Myriad Genetics is the defendant in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that they have a bigger bone to pick with the U.S. patent office than they do with the company holding the gene patent, i.e. Myriad.
Many of the plaintiffs are cancer suffers who argue that the gene patent restricts further developments in gene research. According to Wendy K. Chung, the director of clinical genetics at Columbia University and a plaintiff in the case, “With a sole provider, there’s mediocrity.” The plaintiffs argue that if market forces were allowed to work instead of being restricted by the patent, then the gene variants would be identified faster than is the current case.
For many of the plaintiff’s there is an urgency to their case. One of the plaintiffs has breast cancer and had a double mastectomy; she wants very much for further BRCA testing to determine her risk of ovarian cancer to assist her in deciding whether to have her ovaries removed. Myriad had refused to work with her insurance plan and paying for the test herself is way beyond her financial means. Yet if other companies were able to test the BRCA gene then she might be able to obtain the medical information she needs.