Recently a dear friend sent me a link to an article in the February 1996 issue of Nature Medicine. The article by journalist Adam Marcus covered a media event and panel of women’s rights advocates expressing concern about Myriad’s impending patenting of the BRCA1 gene. Panelists declared unregulated genetic testing to be the coming century's foremost threat to individual liberty. Incredibly, 17 years after the publication of Adam Marcus’ article, the debate is still ongoing—the issue of gene patenting and the consequences of lacking regulation regarding gene patents are still present and as relevant as they were then.
Admittedly, I missed this article the first time around. In 1996, I was more likely to be reading the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association than a human medical journal. With a toddler, a budding veterinary career, and no significant family history of breast cancer, my focus was not on hereditary cancer. In fact, genetic testing and gene patents were furthest from my mind. But my diagnosis with breast cancer eight months later and subsequent revelation that I have a BRCA2 mutation changed that.
When I was first tested for a BRCA mutation in 1998, I was fortunate; my testing costs were covered by my health insurance. I was very grateful to have access to the test; my gratitude extended to the laboratory that made the test available to me. Although I was initially tested without genetic counseling, I went to MD Anderson Cancer Center for a second opinion and eventually found my way to a genetics expert and had access to up-to-date and credible information from experts. It wasn’t until I became immersed in my work with FORCE that I became aware of deeper issues that were the consequence of Myriad holding patents on the BRCA genes.
In 2009, Joanna Rudnick released her documentary In the Family, which shined a spotlight on Myriad’s gene patents and some of these consequences. The documentary included an eye-opening interview with Dr. Mark Skolnick, founder of Myriad Genetics. Joanna questions how a gene—a product of nature—can be patented, saying “It’s like patenting your thumb.” Skolnick compares Myriad’s patents on the BRCA genes to patents for ipods, telephones, and computers, and cavalierly asserts "there's no controversial patent. It's all very easy to understand if you take the time."
In the film, Joanna brilliantly follows the Myriad interview with an interview of Dr. Mary-Claire King, who was credited with identifying the location of the BRCA gene when she was a researcher at University of California at Berkeley. Dr. King has dedicated herself to the research that proved the existence of hereditary breast cancer gene mutations. Her research laid groundwork that sent many laboratories racing to be the first to isolate and clone the gene for genetic testing.
In Rudnick’s film, Dr. Skolnick says, “I think the single greatest inventive thing I did was to create Myriad. We did it to win the race…and we won.” Asked point-blank why the cost of the test is increasing, Dr. Skolnick replies, “that’s a good question, and I think there’s a point at which we have to start looking at decreasing the cost of the test.” Yet, four years after the documentary was released, the cost of testing has gone up—BRCA testing is more expensive, even though the technology for sequencing DNA has become less expensive.
The gist of Dr. King’s interview starkly contrasts with Dr. Skolnick’s statements. Dr. King speaks about genes for which she holds patents, saying, “The critical thing about the patents we hold is that none of them are exclusively licensed. So they are completely open for anyone to use for research purposes and any company that wishes to license them can license them for a trivial amount of money.” King mentions that her last royalty check amounted to $2.73. In contrast, the February 6 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune reports Myriad’s earnings: "Myriad projects full-year 2013 revenue will fall between $575 million and $585 million. That would be a 16 percent to 18 percent increase over fiscal 2012." The contrast is apparent and appalling.
Over the years, FORCE has appealed to government agencies and spoken to the health care community and the public regarding Myriad’s exclusive patent, and explained how the corporation’s marketing strategies and policies have increased the burden on the hereditary cancer community that we serve. In 2008 and again in 2009 we testified to the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetics Health and Society, expressing our concerns with direct-to-consumer marketing of genetic tests, and specifically Myriad’s marketing practices, which we feel encourages BRCA testing without first receiving genetic counseling from qualified experts trained in cancer genetics. In our opinion, their aggressive marketing strategies have been harmful to members of our community.
In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging Myriad’s patents on the BRCA genes. On April 15, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on gene patenting. This hearing will represent the culmination of four years of the legal tug-of-war between Myriad Genetics and the plaintiffs, which included the ACLU and a long list of individual, advocacy, and health care professional groups. FORCE agrees with the ACLU that exclusive gene patents negatively affect access to care and research and we have filed an Amicus (Friend of the Court) brief on behalf of plaintiffs. You can read our testimony to the United States Patent and Trademark Office on the topic of how exclusive gene patenting impacts research and access to care. The Supreme Court oral arguments will be open to public participation.
For those who wish to learn more about Dr. King’s work, Decoding Annie Parker is a new movie that follows the parallel lives of Dr. King and Annie Parker, a Canadian woman whose family was impacted by hereditary cancer. Based on a true story, the film raises the profile of Dr. King’s contribution to the discovery of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome and the BRCA1 gene mutation. It is sure to resonate with many in our community. FORCE is a proud charity partner of the movie, which stars Helen Hunt as Dr. King. A special screening will be held April 2 in New York City. FORCE will hold screenings of the film in other cities. Stay tuned for updates.