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Why Angelina Jolie's Genetic Test Cost So Much


For all the praise Angelina Jolie is getting for her proactive decision regarding her risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer, there are voices claiming that, as a wealthy celebrity, she can afford to do this and that others cannot. This goes for every step involved, including the genetic testing.

On that subject, Jolie herself wrote that

It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live. The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.

More than $3,000?

So why does this test cost over $3,000 anyway?

There is a very good reason why the initial genetic test to determine whether or not one carries either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene associated with these cancers is as expensive as it is.

It's not because the test is extraordinarily difficult to carry out.

It's not because it's cutting-edge.

It's not because it saves lives and is therefore worth any and every penny.

Simply put, it's because even if you carry these genes, you don't own them. These cancer-causing genes are owned by a private company.

Myriad Genetics

A biotech called Myriad Genetics owns the patents on these genes. As patent holders, they decide how much the test costs. This monopoly on these frightening genes extends to research into them as well.

You're wondering, "how in the hell can anybody patent a gene?"

After all, the US Supreme Court has always held that natural phenomena can not be patented.

Myriad says that it isolated and modified the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, and in that form they do not naturally occur in nature. By 'isolate' they mean that they removed the genes from the body and by doing so, instantly made them patent-eligible.

Therefore, they claim their patents are valid. These patents extend to cover "every naturally-occurring version of those genes, including mutations" because Myriad believes that in isolating the genes, they in essence 'invented' them.

The Association for Molecular Pathologists

The Association for Molecular Pathologists strongly disagrees. They claim that Myriad merely isolated a gene that already existed in nature, and that they did not modify it at all.

They say that even when isolated, the gene does the same thing as the same gene that hasn't been isolated, making them beyond the scope of a patent.

The Courts

This enormous disagreement is better known as Association for Molecular Pathology, et al. v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., a case before the US Supreme Court right now.

Should genes be patent-eligible?

Myriad Genetics is not currently contributing its own research into these genes to any accessible database so that more can be learned about them, chiefly because it doesn't have to.

You can read more about this case at Cornell University Law School's Legal Information Institute. It's not nearly as cut-and-dried as it may seem, but its outcome will have enormous consequences for each and every one of us.

Photo by Efloch


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