People Over Profit: What the BRCA Ruling Means for Patients’ Rights

Last Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that human genes cannot be patented, a historic decision that guarantees that the DNA that comprises our very being cannot be owned by a corporation. The hard-fought victory had been years in the making and represented a David and Goliath fight between patients and profit.

In one corner you had Myriad Genetics, a Salt Lake City-based biotechnology company that had patented the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that, if mutated, can warn of a susceptibility to breast or ovarian cancer. In the other you had a team of lawyers from the ACLU along with genetic researchers and patient advocacy groups. The justices ruled unanimously that naturally occurring genes cannot be patented and that though Myriad deserved credit for isolating gene, they could not take credit for the gene itself.

In his decision Justice Clarence Thomas wrote:

Myriad did not create anything. To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed, saying that “In isolation, it has no value. It’s just nature sitting there.”

The monumental decision will now allow other labs to provide the same genetic testing for BRCA genes, when before if a patient wanted to know if they had the life-threatening mutation they had to pay (or have their insurance pay) around $3,000 to Myriad. A wider market of labs should lead to lower costs and greater access to patients. Now the price is predicted to be slashed by up to 75 percent, making it more available to those without health insurance. In fact, by late afternoon on the day of the ruling, DNATrait, a Houston-based genetics company, said it would offer the test for $995.

The Supreme Court helped to ensure that in the field of genetics, patient’s health will be put before corporate profits.

Karuna Jaggar, the executive director of Breast Cancer Action, has written for us previously on the danger of allowing human genes to be patented. Her group was instrumental in going after the Myriad monopoly, and after their triumph last week, she spoke with us about what this decision means for the rights of patients.

Ms. Blog: What will this do for breast cancer research and what will it mean for women’s health?

Karuna Jaggar: There’s no question that this was a tremendous win for patients. The court ruled that DNA is a product of nature and that all doctors and researchers have access to the building blocks of life.

We have already immediately seen five new labs offer better tests at lower cost on the same day of the SCOTUS ruling. This is proof that the Myriad patent was a monopoly that allowed them to offer outdated tests at exorbitant prices. Instantaneously, women have access to better and cheaper tests, and for the first time can get a second opinion. Myriad was so protective of their patent that their tests have never been scientifically validated. For women considering removing a healthy organ, they have a right to a second opinion. Women have been placed in impossible situations because second opinions for the BRCA mutation didn’t exist.

This opens the doors to research for all hereditary diseases and strips away major barriers to innovation in medicine and science.

It’s life and death for women with the BRCA mutation, and the Supreme Court decision frees up this genome for medical advancement. Courts have said that DNA cannot owned by a corporation, which is unprecedented. With this court win, we’ve changed history and we’ve changed the conversation.

Myriad has demonstrated that the bottom line is what drives their decisions. They patented these genes and policed them so aggressively—going after research labs and shutting them down, using fear mongering in their marketing tactics—that they’ve earned a uniquely egregious reputation in the breast cancer community. People in this community hate Myriad and what they’ve been doing. They are only about the profit. They offer old tests when there are plenty of labs willing to give better and more affordable testing.

What do you think was most instrumental in securing a SCOTUS win?

ACLU did an exemplary job arguing the case, and in the end we won because we’re right. These patents shouldn’t have been granted in the first place. There has been a lot of evidence of direct harm by Myriad, and they represented the worst-case scenario of what can happen when corporations are allowed to patent DNA. Genes need to be made available for all of humankind for the benefit of all of humankind. Myriad didn’t create anything, therefore they can’t own BRCA.

This is why it’s so important for public health organizations to be free from corporate influence. We have to make sure they have the resources to go toe-to-toe with Big Pharma. We need effective watch dogs that can’t be swayed by the power of corporations.

Photo of Karuna Jaggar courtesy of Breast Cancer Action

Photo of Team Myriad at breast cancer walk courtesy of myriadgenetics via Creative Commons 2.0.


Associate editor of Ms. magazine