Cancer researcher lauds ruling against gene patents

US ruling against gene patenting hailed by discoverer of the BRCA1 breast cancer mutation that affects many Israelis, Jews.

June 17, 2013 05:19
2 minute read.
DNA strand double helix

DNA strand double helix 311. (photo credit: Jerome Walker)

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.

King added 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 days.

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.

Prof. Ephrat 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.”

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