The New York Times reported on a lawsuit challenging the Patent Office’s decision to grant a patent on genes associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad Genetics owns the patent on those genes and the testing that measures the risk. If women like Genae Girard, the thirty-nine year old battling breast cancer who brought the suit, wish to determine their risk, Myriad is the only place to go.
Can someone really patent our DNA? The argument made by companies like Myriad is that they have done something extra that has “made the genes more than nature's work.” The temporary monopoly provided by the patent is seen as a reward for the company’s investment in research and development. Although this reasoning may be superficially appealing, is it really what is best for the medical community?
Having only one provider of this genetic testing may promote mediocrity. The risks of patent infringement lawsuits prevent other laboratories from improving the tests. Additionally, there are patients who cannot afford Myriad’s high cost. Other labs are capable of providing the tests for a cheaper cost. Should a patient concerned with their cancer risk really be prevented from obtaining an affordable test because of patent laws?
This suit raises many interesting questions to which there are no easy answers. The companies that research and develop the genes, along with the risk testing technique, should obviously be rewarded. This does promote the advancement of medical technology. But should the “reward” really obstruct a patient’s access to essential, life-saving tests? Should others be prevented from learning more about the genes and improving the testing method? What do you think? I have a feeling that these questions will be at the forefront of litigation for a long time.