Ownership of Genes Stops Research

by jeeg 7. June 2013 20:58

Gene patents have both restricted and distorted research. The clearest example is the way Myriad Genetics has used its patents on BRCA genes to become the sole provider of comprehensive BRCA testing, shutting down many of the early BRCA testing services that were part of genetics research projects. The company’s aggressive approach also had a chilling effect on other scientists, who pursued alternative avenues of research rather than contend with possibly endless litigation.

Researchers will feel the effects of Myriad’s patents long after they expire. The company’s proprietary database — which is particularly powerful because of Myriad’s patent-based monopoly on BRCA testing — contains information about the hundreds of possible BRCA mutations that cause disease. But, this knowledge is unavailable to physicians, patients or researchers outside the company. And the consequences are significant: by limiting access to the database, Myriad reduces our understanding of mutation occurrence and expression, and hurts the development of diagnostics and therapeutics tailored to individuals with particular mutations. This is affecting the hundreds of thousands of American women thought to have a BRCA mutation, and the thousands of scientists interested in doing research in this broad area.

Some argue that the Myriad case is relatively rare, and therefore should not be much cause for concern. But it should not be so easily dismissed. Because of its relationship to a common and high-profile disease at an early stage in the genomics revolution, the BRCA gene story has shaped the evolution of genetic innovation. Myriad is a rare genomics company making a profit, for example, so other companies engaged in the first and second generations of genetic technology development are emulating its business strategies. There is no doubt that its approach to patents will affect the structure and culture of genetics research for years to come.

Finally, it is worth noting that the genetics community, including the American Society of Human Genetics, has come out overwhelmingly in favor of the plaintiffs in the Myriad litigation. If gene patents aren’t a serious problem affecting geneticists and the culture of science, would they be sticking their necks out on such a divisive topic?

Shobita Parthasarathy, NY Times


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