Friday, September 10, 2010

My genes, not Myriad's

I wrote an opinion piece on the patent case involving the BRCA patents that was published today in the Santa Monica Daily Press. It begins:

A company in Utah owns my genes, or at least they owned bits of them until recently when the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York invalidated patents issued to Myriad Genetics for the breast cancer genes, known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. I have a BRCA2 mutation and have long wondered how it was that Myriad could own two small slices of the chromosomes that reside in every cell in my body. After all, Myriad didn't "invent" my DNA; that was the exclusive job of my parents, who created the unique DNA sequence that is mine.

My mother had breast cancer when she was 43 and her grandmother also had breast cancer. When I wanted to test for the breast cancer genes my only option was to send my blood and my money to Myriad because their exclusive patent precludes other companies from testing for these genes.

The District Court's decision is only the opening skirmish in what is likely to be a protracted battle over gene patents. Myriad has appealed, and experts believe this is an issue that will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. But the decision is nonetheless a watershed moment with implications that reach far beyond the BRCA genes, because approximately 20 percent of the human genome has been patented. Several thousand companies own different slices of my DNA.

Myriad and others argue that without the promise of patent protection companies will not invest the money needed to make new genetic discoveries. While this argument has some merit it ignores the fact that millions of public dollars also went into the discovery of the BRCA genes. The fruit of this public investment in gene research should be publicly available.

In contrast to the BRCA genes and other privately patented genes, the vast majority of gene sequences were discovered through the Human Genome Research Project and are publicly available through a database on the Internet, which facilitates collaboration and research to find cures for complex diseases like cancer. Multitudes of companies as well as public institutions do fund and collaborate on research on these non-patented genes.

The era of truly personalized medicine is at hand, when genetic information can be used to customize medical recommendations for both prevention of and treatment of diseases. But first we need to know the genetic code stored in our DNA. The National Human Genome Research Project is speeding toward its goal of a commercially available analysis of an individual's entire genome for less than $1,000. Yet even when technologically feasible, no company will be able to actually provide a full genome sequence. All of the DNA slices covered by patents will be excluded. Although I paid Myriad to find out that I have a BRCA2 mutation, as a practical matter neither I or anyone else will pay several thousand different companies for the information stored in the various other slices of DNA that are subject to patents. A full genome sequence for $1,000 would be useful to me and to my doctor, especially if it could shed light on my risk for the heart disease in my family. The future of personalized medicine could be strangled by the patent system. What an absurdity.
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