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Breast Cancer - Supreme Court rules genes can’t be patented

Myriad Genetics just lost its two most valuable patents: BRCA1 and BRCA2, genes whose mutations are known to cause breast cancer. The pair were at the center of the Supreme Court's contentious case on whether or not genes can be patented. 

Due to their legal claim over the two genes, Myriad was the sole company with the right to test for them in women who feared breast cancer—a two-step, costly procedure. The pricetag involved has discouraged some women from going beyond the preliminary round of testing, leading to increased fatalities.

The issue came into the limelight recently after actress Angelina Jolie's NYTimes essay about her double mastectomy, which sparked increased discussion on breast cancer detection and treatment. However, while the court unanimously ruled on Thursday that human genes cannot be patented. and hence that organic genetic matter is off-limits, it conceded that while the naturally occurring isolated biological material itself is not patentable, engineered synthetic material mimicking the original gene may be patentable.

The overriding legal question addressed was whether "products of nature" can be treated the same as "human-made" inventions, allowing them to be held as the exclusive intellectual property of individuals and companies.

The broader issue involved 21st century conflicts over cutting-edge medical science, the power of business and individual legal rights, and how their convergence might influcence decisionmaking over how people and medicine manage the prospect and reality of certain diseases, like cancer.

The Supreme Court case involves Myriad Genetics, a Utah-based company that was sued over its claim of patents relating to two types of biological material that it identified -- BRCA1 and BRCA2, whose mutations are linked to increased hereditary risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

Since Myriad owns the patent on breast cancer genes, it was the only company that could perform tests for potential abnormalities.

It says 1 million patients have benefited from its "BRAC Analysis" technology, and that about 250,000 such tests are performed yearly.

An initial test catches most problems, but the company also offers a second called BART to detect the rest, a diagnostic that can cost several thousand dollars.

Jolie had Myriad's breast cancer test.


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