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A coalition of researchers, genetic counselors, cancer survivors, breast cancer support groups, and scientific associations representing 150,000 geneticists, pathologists and laboratory professionals argue that gene patents can be problematic on both counts. The American Medical Association, the American Society of Human Genetics, the March of Dimes and even James Watson (co-discoverer, in 1953, of the double helix), among others, have filed briefs asking the court to invalidate Myriad’s patents on genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2.
On the other side are Myriad and industry groups such as the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and the Animal Health Institute, which say that if gene patenting is ruled invalid, companies - with no guarantee they could profit from their discoveries - would stop investing in genetics research, to the detriment not only of patients but the economy.
Gene patent opponents say studies and surveys show that such patents tie the hands of scientists and thwart research.
A 2010 investigation by an advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that patent holders had barred physicians and laboratories from offering genetic testing for hearing loss, leukemia, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s disease, a heart condition called Long QT syndrome and other disorders affected by patented genes.
In a 2003 survey, 53 percent of the directors of genetics labs said they had given up some research due to gene-patent concerns. And in 2001, 49 percent of members of the American Society of Human Genetics said their research had to be limited due to gene patents.
“The overabundance of gene patents is a large and looming threat to personalized medicine,” Cornell’s Mason said. “How is it possible that my doctor cannot look at my DNA without being concerned about patent infringement? Individuals have an innate right to their own genome, or to allow their doctor to look at that genome, just like the lungs or kidneys.”