Like most people, I get a lot of junk email these days. The nicer spam is targeted, asking me if I’ve fully prepped my summer wardrobe, do I want three car washes for the price of two, or how I feel about my exercise regime.
(No. Yes. What regime?)
But sometimes, there’s a diamond among all that rough. Like yesterday’s perfectly understated press release from Johns Hopkins Media Relations:
FIRST PLAINTIFF IN MYRIAD CASE, AVAILABLE TO COMMENT ON SUPREME COURT GENE PATENTING DECISION
Beginning in 1995, in a genetics lab at the University of Pennsylvania, Haig Kazazian and his colleague Arupa Ganguly tested roughly 500 women per year for the breast-cancer-predicting genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. In 1999, they received a “cease and desist” letter from Myriad Genetics, which had successfully patented the genes in 1998.
Someone had patented a piece of biology. And then protected it.
And this was all well and good until yesterday when the Supreme Court of the United States decided hey folks, you can’t do that anymore.
So here’s the story:
Act I: The Hero
It was 1994. I was busy impressing my first grade class with a solid recitation of the backwards alphabet. Mark Skolnick (along with colleague Peter Meldrum) was finishing sequencing an important stretch of DNA, later known as the gene BReastCAncer1 or BRCA1.
(I think we were both profound in our own ways.)
It’s now known that women with mutations in either this gene or its counterpart (BRCA2) have up to an 87% risk of developing breast cancer by age 70. Thankfully, less than 1% actually have the mutation.
Skolnick and Meldrum went on to found Myriad Genetics. Around the same time, the researchers mentioned in the Johns Hopkins release began working with the two breast cancer genes, testing women’s DNA. What they didn’t know was that Myriad was in the process of patenting the gene, like a corporation patenting Waldo after spending years of searching candy-cane colored pages. Not the tools used to find Waldo nor the tedious search strategy, but the very man himself in his jaunty cap, thereby ensuring no other corporation could use Waldo for their own (obviously nefarious) purposes.
Time passed. Famous (… in biology circles) for their complete DNA sequencing of rice, Myriad hit the papers in 2001 for their work helping to identify the victims of the September 11 World Trade Center attacks using DNA samples. Cue the heroic soundtrack.
Act II: The Test
In the meantime, the U.S. Patent Office continued handing out gene patents like it always had for the last 30 years. What was different about Myriad was that it created a test for the breast cancer gene, called BRACAnalysis. The test wouldn’t have been so significant had it not held a complete monopoly on the BRCA1/2 testing market. No one else could test their own analyses because the two genes were already locked away by Myriad – how can you develop a tool to find Waldo when you aren’t allowed to look at his face?
Act III: The Heartbreak
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation swooped in and filed a lawsuit against Myriad in 2009 on behalf of scientists, breast cancer groups, and women. Judge Robert Sweet struck down the patent. There were appeals, there were new accusers (including the Association for Molecular Pathology), and as of yesterday, the final decision was made: you can’t patent a natural gene. Unlike playground logic, just because you found it, doesn’t mean it’s yours.
And while this is exciting for like, people, it’s even more exciting for researchers who are free to research and test genes at their discretion and without the worry of a harrowing legal letter. It also seems to leave some researchers in the air – according to genomics.energy.gov there are over 3 million genomic-related patents in the pipeline.
Act IV: The Unexpected
But what’s a ruling without a good twist? What’s an M. Night Shyamalan movie without a subversive ending?
Though the Supreme Court ruled natural genes couldn’t be patented, they stated Myriad (and others) could patent synthetic genes, those being homemade DNA, cooked up for research purposes. (Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s over-expressed protein.)
In solidarity of happy endings, no one has quite come out of this a loser (yet). Though Myriad’s breast cancer test dropped to less than $1,000 from its initial price point of $3,340, their stock also jumped to $35.93 (twice the price of Krispy Kreme, I might add).
And if you’re really into this stuff, you’ll watch the BBC series Orphan Black whose season 1 finale revealed a host of people (conveniently, clones) with patented DNA. They also have an excellent, if small, collection of links relating to the topic.