Last month many were taken by surprise when actress Angelina Jolie published an op-ed in the New York Times about her experience with genetic testing for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. In it, she revealed that she had recently had a preventative double mastectomy (a surgery to remove breast tissue) due to her “faulty” BRCA1 gene. Harmful mutations in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 are known to significantly increase the risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer. Jolie’s doctors estimated that she had an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer and 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer. In the op-ed she indicated 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.” Unfortunately, as Jolie pointed out, the cost of BRCA testing is very steep at over $4000. Fortunately, not for long.
On June 13th, in the case of the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court ruled that human genes cannot be patented. The case involved patents held by Myriad Genetics, a molecular diagnostic company based in Salt Lake City, Utah that has been the sole provider of BRCA testing. Justice Clarence Thomas stated that isolated genes were not patent-eligible because “Myriad did not create anything”. He asserted that “a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated”, and similar arguments were echoed by other members of the court.
What does this mean for genetic testing?
Now that Myriad is no longer the only company that can legally provide these tests, costs have fallen drastically. Immediately after the court’s ruling, three genetic testing companies and two university labs announced that they would begin offering genetic testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2. The ruling is also expected to even the market and improve public health by making genetic testing more available. Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Dr. Harry Ostrer, a plaintiff in the case, believes that the availability of cheaper tests “will have an immediate impact on people’s health.”
A copy of the Supreme Court’s full decision can found here.
Jolie’s New York Times op-ed can be found here.