Angelina Jolie announced today in a New York Times op-ed that she recently underwent a double mastectomy after finding out that she has the gene mutation known as BRCA1, which increases a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer by 87% over her lifetime (and ovarian cancer by 50%). It is certainly a marvel of modern medicine that we not only know about this gene mutation but have the ability to test for it. Jolie’s announcement put a well-known face to the name “BRCA,” which has been in the news a lot this year as part of a larger discussion about genetics and the law.
A company called Myriad Genetics holds the patent on the BRCA gene and is the only company allowed to test for it. The question of whether a company is allowed to patent a gene has been a hugely controversial issue. A lawsuit brought against Myriad a few years ago by plaintiffs represented by the ACLU has ended up in the Supreme Court and is being considered now.
One of the reasons that more people are taking notice of this issue – and perhaps the most important reason to many people in terms of its practical implications – is cost. (more…)