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Should Companies Be Allowed To Patent Your Genes? Bioethicist Arthur Caplan
Health | April 17, 2013

Should Companies Be Allowed To Patent Your Genes? Bioethicist Arthur Caplan

By the end of June, The United States Supreme Court will lay down a landmark ruling on whether genes can be patented by companies. As the media's preeminent go-to expert for all matters involving bioethics, health speaker Arthur Caplan was asked to weigh in on the issues at hand. One of the companies involved in the case is Myriad Genetics. They currently control the patents on variations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes—which have been linked strongly to risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Thus, they have provided themselves with a monopoly over genetic testing for breast cancer and are free to set the testing price at whatever amount they choose. And, as Caplan tells NBC News, "doctors and patients have complained bitterly that Myriad’s high-priced tests have limited access for many women."

These tests can run upwards of $3,000; a cost which is not always covered by a patient's insurance. This isn't the only issue with this type of company control, either. "Myriad’s early patent arguably hindered the willingness of others to aggressively explore better tests for a terrible disease," Caplan, the director of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, says. "Other patents on other gene sequences could have the same effect." While the company argues that they didn't in fact patent the genes themselves, but rather the man-made molecules based on those genes, they still control the marketplace. Patients are unable to get second opinions on their test results because doctors cannot work with the genes that need to be tested. On top of that, if a woman wants to ensure they've been tested for all the mutations that place them at a higher risk for developing cancer, they must take another test conducted by Myriad which will run them another $700.

A legal win for Myriad, and the continued ability to patent genes, could also mean that "personalized medicine" may not be fully possible. Nina Tandon, a tissue engineer, has been conducting research that will allow patients to be given treatments (and receive implants) that apply directly to their unique genetic composition. However, if certain genes are designated as the intellectual property of a company or individual, doctors will not be able to share information about a patient's genome sequence that could be used to provide proactive or specialized care. Complex and important issues at the intersection of science, business, and health are Caplan's specialty, and he has written or edited more than 30 books and 550 papers on the subject. In his talks and media appearances, he addresses these pressing changes in detail and explores how our health care practices have to change in order to reflect the massive shifts in biotechnology.
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