Joanna Rudnick, a breast cancer survivor and BRCA-1 gene carrier, turned 39 today — and got one heck of a birthday present.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that human genes cannot be patented, although it reiterated that synthetic or altered genes may be subject to patent law. In other words, human DNA cannot be patented without being altered in some way.
Advocates called the decision a major victory.
“My life has exploded over the Myriad ruling,” she gushed on the phone. “This is an incredible birthday present. It is a victory. The barrier for women to get tested for BRCA 1 and 2 will now be gone. “
Rudnick is one thousands of Jewish women to be affected by this ruling: Ashkenazi Jews are much more likely to carry the BRCA mutation than the general population.
The court case pitted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against Myriad Genetics Inc., the biopharmaceutical company that owned the patents on the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes, whose mutations are linked to increased hereditary risk for breast and ovarian cancer.
Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas explained: “A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated,” he said. “It is undisputed that Myriad did not create or alter any of the genetic information encoded in the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes.” “Groundbreaking, innovative or even brilliant discovery does not by itself satisfy the criteria” for patent eligibility, he added.
For Arthur Caplan, head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, the Supreme Court made the right decision.
“Immediately [the decision] means that testing should become more available for breast cancer and ovarian cancer using the Myriad test at a lower price,” explained. “Longer term this decision throws into a tizzy a huge number of existing patents,” Caplan said. “The other fallout [is still] uncertain. It’s clear that you can take [out] patents, you just have to take them on products, not on genes.
Sue Friedman, founder and executive director of FORCE: Facing Our Risk Of Cancer Empowered, agreed. As a 17-year cancer survivor and a BRCA-2 carrier, Friedman was elated.
“Personally for me, for my family, for my relatives, this is significant, but also for people who may have a mutation and have not been able to get access to that information. They are part of that extended family that we’ve built through FORCE,” she said.