News / Health

Supreme Court Gene Ruling Benefits Biotech, Breast Cancer Research

FILE - A technician loads patient samples into a machine for testing at Myriad Genetics, May 31, 2002.
FILE - A technician loads patient samples into a machine for testing at Myriad Genetics, May 31, 2002.
TEXT SIZE - +
Megan McGrath
Everyone has BRCA genes in their cells. If you are a woman and one of your BRCA gene copies has a mutation, your risk of developing breast cancer is very high - up to 87 percent in some cases.

A biotechnology company called Myriad Genetics Inc. was the first to discover the healthy, normal code of BRCA. Because a mutation is an error in that code, the normal sequence can be used to test for the breast cancer-causing BRCA mutation. Myriad developed the test, and won patent protection for it and the original BRCA gene.

Thursday, in a case against Myriad by the ACLU, the Supreme Court decreed that genes can no longer be patented, invalidating Myriad’s intellectual claim to the BRCA code. Yet both sides came away claiming victory.

So what happened, and what does this decision mean for cancer patients, medical researchers and biotechnology?

A patent is issued to give an inventor or developer intellectual and property rights to whatever has been made. The patent on the BRCA gene initially was granted for isolated DNA: the gene removed from the human body so that it may be worked with in the lab.

But the federal Patent Act states that an inventor may not claim intellectual property rights for “laws of nature” or “natural phenomena.”

The question was whether the isolated BRCA gene constituted a new invention, having been removed from the body. The Supreme Court unanimously decided that isolated DNA, though isolated, is still natural, and not a human invention.

According to Dr. Marisa Weiss, founder and president of Breastcancer.org, this could mean new research, cures and testing for women with BRCA mutations, and for cancer patients. Until now, researchers have had to pay for the isolated BRCA genetic code, which they need to have to understand how BRCA functions both on its own and in concert with other genes.

BRCA repairs errors in the DNA of breast tissue cells, and prevents unrestrained growth. So, if BRCA is damaged, breast tissue growth can go haywire, leading to cancer.

Five to 10 percent of all breast cancers are caused by BRCA mutation, and it also leads to a greatly increased risk of ovarian cancer. Freeing the isolated BRCA gene from its patent could allow researchers to develop more, cheaper tests for BRCA mutation, which could give more women at increased risk of developing cancer a chance to know their status earlier.

Women with BRCA mutations are advised to monitor their health with frequent breast MRIs, according to Dr. Weiss. They also may choose to undergo preventive mastectomies and removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes to avoid cancer.

With the early awareness provided by BRCA mutation testing, women may even choose to have children earlier to prepare for these surgeries.

American actress Angelina Jolie's recent decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy was a result of having discovered a mutation in one of her BRCA genes.

Myriad Genetics Inc. is not deprived by this decision, however, said Jennifer L. Swize, a lawyer who represented the biotech company. In fact, she said, “to Myriad, this decision is a win.” While the court overturned patents on isolated DNA, it made a point to uphold patents on cDNA (complementary DNA), or synthetic copies of the genetic sequence with useless “junk” segments removed.

CDNA is what Myriad uses in most of its BRCA research anyway, not unmodified isolated DNA. Patents on research and designs like the BRCA mutation test also were upheld. Myriad’s stock rose following the decision.

You May Like

Photogallery Pope's Easter Prayer: Peace in Ukraine, Syria

Pontiff also calls for end to terrorist acts in Nigeria, violence in Iraq, and success in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians More

Abdullah Holds Lead in Afghan Presidential Election

Country's Election Commission says that with half of the ballots counted, former FM remains in the lead with 44 percent of the vote More

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

As tensions between Kyiv and Moscow escalate, so too has frequency of online attacks targeting government, news and financial sites More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid