This post originally appeared on the Liberal America website. 

Yesterday in a stunning Op-Ed, Angelina Jolie revealed that she had undergone a double mastectomy with reconstruction because she is positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation. This gene mutation put her chances of developing breast cancer by the age of 70 at 87%. I am extremely familiar with this mutation because I have it. I have what is known as a “significant family history” of breast cancer. My younger sister was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 38 and went through the testing for the BRCA1 during the course of her treatment. She did not have insurance at the time and was treated through the Bridge Breast Network. I was lucky to have my insurance cover the cost of the test because I have a first degree relative with the gene. That is not common however because the cost of the test is so high.

The test is only performed by one lab and costs around $3500 because Myriad Genetics has a patent on the gene. Yes, you read that right, they have a patent on something that occurs naturally. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, on April 15th, 2013 and a ruling is expected this summer.

“Myriad did not invent the human genes at issue in this case, and they should not be allowed to patent them. The patent system was designed to encourage innovation, not stifle scientific research and the free exchange of ideas, which is what these patents do,” said attorney Chris Hansen of the ACLU, who argued the case.

Sue Friedman, founder of Facing Our Risk Of Cancer Empowered (FORCE), agrees with the ACLU that these patents make it harder for people to access care and stifle innovation. (Source: JHU Press)

“The SCOTUS decision is critically important for anyone who is concerned specifically with hereditary disease. FORCE has filed an Amicus brief on behalf of plaintiffs in advance of the hearing. The Myriad case is just one example of how exclusive patents on genes can hurt consumers. Gene patents are a universal issue that ultimately affects all of us. Even if hereditary cancer does not run in your family, chances are that you have inherited a genetic predisposition to some disease. Imagine if a company were given exclusive control over all testing and research for a disease that runs in your family.”

The Supreme Court is unlikely to issue a sweeping ruling in this case and a few justices made comments that seemed to hint that they will try to find a compromise solution. (Source: Huffinton Post) There is no question that this ruling will have a significant impact on our access to care.

What are your thoughts on this? Should they be able to patent something that they did not invent or substantially alter? How would this affect care? Do you think the gene identification would even be possible if they didn't think they could make money from it?

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