Genomic Sequencing: Where Science and Law Collide

Have law and policy ever been able to keep up with scientific discovery and innovation?  When some hominid first discovered how to ignite a fire, there was probably a lawyer on hand to extinguish it because it infringed on an ingenious technique for using a couple of sticks to make smoke.

Microarray (gene chip), image courtesy of NHGRI

Eons later, we haven’t made much progress in keeping our legal system in pace with the exponential advances of science and technology.  Even as our courts are addressing the vexing question of whether specific genes — and the analysis of those genes — can be patented, the ability to commercially sequence an individual’s whole genome is rapidly advancing.

I had a chance to talk with Dr. Lynn Jorde, who is president-elect of the American Society of Human Genetics, at the society’s annual meeting.  He pointed out to me that Myriad Genetics‘ patent of BRCA1/2 genes prevents all uses of the information that the genes contain. Essentially, if a a physician or geneticist has knowledge of a BRCA mutation that puts a patient at increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer, he or she can not disclose this information under the patent.

If the Myriad test is the only way to determine the presence of such mutations — forgetting the issue of second opinions — maybe it’s not such a big deal.  Suppose, however, that the patient’s whole genome has been sequenced … from which one could “see” the presence of the mutations.  Under the law, a physician can’t make a diagnosis, tell the patient or start the patient on treatment.  As ASHG wrote in its amicus brief in the Myriad case:

By staking claims on all isolated versions of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, Myriad effectively controls all of the naturally occurring BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancer genes from everyone‘s bodies. No woman (or man) can give her (or his) own breast cancer gene to a doctor or researcher to analyze for purposes of diagnosis or research, because once that gene is removed from the body Myriad‘s patent claims cover it. No clinician or scientist can perform diagnosis or research using such gene sequences or the information they contain without violating the patents.

Yet every physician essentially takes an oath to treat disease and illness … not to mention sharing medical research.  Talk about caught between a rock and a hard place.

Of course, personal genomic sequencing is still a ways off for most people, Ozzy Osbourne notwithstanding. For now, Myriad’s patents for BRCA1/2 are invalidated but that court decision is under appeal.  At the end of October, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Department of Justice has weighed in on the decision by filing an amicus brief that essentially supports the idea that genes are not patentable. Only time will tell how things will shake out in this case … or what it will mean for many other gene patents on file at the USPTO.

Ironically, Dr. Jorde — who got me thinking about all of this — works for the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, a joint plaintiff with Myriad, in the case.

Kerri Wachter

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Filed under Family Medicine, Genomic medicine, Health Policy, IMNG, Internal Medicine, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Oncology

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