The US Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling last week that newly discovered genes
belong to humankind and cannot be patented will be a boon “to patients, their
families, their doctors, scientists – and common sense,” said the University of
Washington’s Prof. Mary-Claire King on Sunday.
“The ruling was in
response to BRCA1 and BRCA2 but is written generally, to apply to all genes,”
said King, the discoverer of the BRCA1 breast cancer mutation that affects many
Israelis and Jews.
A close friend of Israeli genetics and cancer
researchers and a frequent visitor to this country, King demonstrated in 1990
that a single gene on chromosome 17, later known as BRCA1, was responsible for
many breast and ovarian cancers and that as many as five to ten percent of all
cases of breast cancer were hereditary.
“The breast cancer context
includes BRCA1 and BRCA2 and multiple other genes that also harbor mutations
predisposing to breast or ovarian cancer,” King told The Jerusalem Post from her
office at the University of Washington in Seattle. King, an American Cancer
Society professor in the medical school of her university’s departments of
medicine and genome sciences, said she has given dozens of interviews to the US
and foreign media in the last few days.
For Ashkenazi Jewish women, she
continued, “this will mean that testing can be done straightforwardly both for
the founder mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2, which has been done in Israel for more
than a decade and for mutations in all other breast cancer genes, of which there
are now about a dozen. For Jewish women of other (non- Ashkenazi) origins, and
for Arab Israeli women, the ruling is even more meaningful, because founder
mutations play less of a role in these populations,” she said.
that a vastly larger number of mutations are involved when treating women of
non-Ashkenazi- Jewish ancestry.
“The market is now open to complete –
even private – screening of BRCA1 and BRCA2 and all other breast cancer genes
for all possible mutations, nearly all of which are extremely rare. I expect
multiple testing services will become available soon, probably within
Next-generation sequencing has been used in research labs for more
than two years to sequence BRCA1 and BRCA2, and the other critical genes. Now
this technology can be made available to patients.”
The case, which
resulted in a nine to zero vote by the justices, dealt with Myriad Genetics, a
private company in Utah that registered patents on genes connected to BRCA
genes. But scientists opposed such patenting, said that it would be much more
difficult for them to “translate” their research into helping their patients and
allowing doctors to send them for testing. But while natural DNA comprising
genes cannot be patented, experts said that “synthetic DNA” was different in
that researchers were able to create it in their labs.
Levy-Lahad, head of the medical genetics institute at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek
Medical Center – a close friend and collaborator of King – said that “what is
relevant to us is that now Israeli researchers and biomed companies will be
freed to develop gene-based diagnostics without concern for patent restrictions
regarding the genes themselves.”