Monday, May 18, 2009

When government patents limit women's health - the ACLU lawsuit over breast cancer testing and research

Imagine you are a woman who may have breast cancer. The cancer runs in your family and you need a diagnosis to know if you have one of the two genes associated with breast cancer. The test can tell you if you are at risk for cancer, but there is only one diagnostic test for the gene and therefore no way to get a second opinion on the life-changing test results.

Or imagine you are a woman who is a breast cancer survivor and who has had a double mastectomy. The gene that is linked to the breast cancer could mutate and be the cause of ovarian cancer. Whether or not you have a chance of having the ovarian cancer gene will affect your decision to have your ovaries removed along with your future option to have children.

There is only one company in Salt Lake City that offers the test for $3000.

These choices are facing women across the country. Testing for genetic links to breast and ovarian cancer is possible. But there is only one company that holds the patents to the genetic test. The government, through the patent system, has granted one company a monopoly over the gene (and its mutations), future testing and research.

The ACLU’s website on the breast cancer gene patent says that: “The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has granted thousands of patents on human genes – in fact, about 20 percent of our genes are patented. A gene patent holder has the right to prevent anyone from studying, testing or even looking at a gene. As a result, scientific research and genetic testing has been delayed, limited or even shut down due to concerns about gene patents.”

On May 12, the ACLU filed a lawsuit (along with partner, the Public Patent Foundation) against the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Myriad Genetics and the University of Utah Research Foundation, holders of the gene patents. The lawsuit charges that the patent is a virtual monopoly over something in nature, a human gene and its variations, that cannot be patented.

Want to learn more? Details on the lawsuit can be found on the ACLU website. You can also read more about the implications of the gene patent in this CNN article.

Want to do more? Become a member of the ACLU – your membership supports our important litigation work like the patent lawsuit. You can also sign a message of support on this issue.