Patents, BRCA2, and Ashkenazim

A column in Slate by Masha Gessen covers the controversy surrounding Myriad Genetics' patent on a test for breast cancer risk via mutations in BRCA2. The test assesses the presence of mutations that are associated with cancer risk; these mutations were discovered and assessed in Ashkenazi Jewish women. As the article explains, this patent has raised concerns: not only because of the potential of profit from the genetic variability of this specific group, but also because members of this specific group bear the price of testing. In other words:

To the usual questions -- should it be possible to patent something that is hardly invented by humans, and does the practice of issuing such patents encourage research or impede it -- a novel and questionable one has been added: Is it good for the Jews?

One major concern is that other BRCA2 mutations, which are not covered by the patent, may later be part of tests that are less expensive -- a real possibility since gene sequencing may become more economical during the 17-year duration of the patent.

And there are the effects on current health care:

Now it's the Israeli geneticists and oncologists who are sounding the alarm. Their argument is fairly straightforward. Myriad Genetics charges $500 for its test kit (in the United States, insurance companies will usually pick up the cost if the woman has a family history of the cancers, is of Ashkenazi descent, and otherwise looks like she may well have the mutation). A similar kit costs just $70 in Israel, and in most cases one of the national health funds picks up the cost. Myriad is trying to enforce its patent worldwide, and winning the EPO ruling is an integral part of this fight. If Israel is forced to use Myriad's patented kit, it may have to cut back on the number of tests Israel's national health-care system provides -- say, by restricting reimbursement to women who have several relatives with the relevant cancers. As a result, some women who have the mutation may not be tested.

The column discusses the counter-argument well; that the Ashkenazim benefit by having their specific disorders subject to so much research. It's hard to weigh these against each other, and that makes it a good subject for this comparison (via Gene Expression).