Three years in the making, the now highly publicized American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against Myriad Genetics is still hanging in the balance. On May 12, 2009, ACLU sued Myriad Genetics, a Salt Lake City-based company that holds patents for the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, both of which affect risk for developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Representing individual scientists and physicians, genetic counselors, patients and scientific organizations, ACLU claimed these patents were invalid.
As discussed in Rebecca Skloot’s book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” monetary gain from biological materials has been occurring for decades. HeLa cell lines were developed from cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks. Skloot notes that HeLa cell products cost $100 to $10,000 for a single vial and there are more than 17,000 patents related to HeLa cells.
After BRCA1 and BRCA2 were patented, Myriad Genetics developed genetic tests for these genes. While the initial funding investment and scientific efforts to develop these tests have been acknowledged, the monopoly created by this ownership has resulted in major controversy.
The patenting system was established to foster creativity and innovation while protecting intellectual property. By protecting ideas, companies can secure investments for developing and bringing new products to market, without worrying about competition. Furthermore, patenting offers a way to reward innovators for their ideas, which therefore encourages creative endeavors. Patents have had a positive impact in creating some outstanding products, for example, in wireless technology. But when it comes to biological entities, the value of patents has been questioned, especially in the case of genes.