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Spread the Word — Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer and Gene Patents

Aliya Hussain,
Women's Rights Project
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September 30, 2010

The last week of September was recently recognized as National Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Week. As people take this time to learn about cancer risk, we also want to highlight a significant barrier for patients’ access to care and research: patents on human genes.

Most hereditary breast and ovarian cancers are caused by mutations in two human genes, genes that everyone has: BRCA1 and BRCA2. A woman with a BRCA mutation faces up to an 85 percent chance of developing breast cancer and a 60 percent chance of ovarian cancer, both significantly greater than that of the rest of the population.

The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office granted patents on these two genes in the 1990’s. As a result, a private biotechnology company, Myriad Genetics, has the right to prevent anyone else from testing, studying, or even examining the BRCA genes. It is the only company in the U.S. where women (and men) can get their BRCA genes sequenced, which means that there’s no second opinion. And it has the right to charge what it likes for the test, because there’s no shopping around.

The ACLU has challenged the right of companies like Myriad to patent human genes in court. However, our lawsuit isn’t the only way that we’re fighting the patenting of human genes. We believe that once people understand what’s at the heart of this issue, the more likely they will agree that that no one should have exclusive control over our genes.

We want to get out the word and you can help. Here’s a list of resources on the real-life consequences of gene patents and how to spread the word and take action. As we commemorate the first ever National Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Week, we remind everyone that the more you know, the more you can do.