Gene patents limit availability of information, says Parthasarathy in New York Times op-ed

June 6, 2013

In the article, "Ownership of Genes Stops Research," at the New York Times, Shobita Parthasarathy, associate professor of public policy, responds to the question of whether companies should be allowed to patent genes. Parthasarathy reasons that, as the sole owners of BRCA gene patents, Myriad Genetics has power that will continue long after the patents expire because


The company's proprietary database — which is particularly powerful because of Myriad's patent-based monopoly on BRCA testing — contains information about the hundreds of possible BRCA mutations that cause disease. But, this knowledge is unavailable to physicians, patients or researchers outside the company. And the consequences are significant: by limiting access to the database, Myriad reduces our understanding of mutation occurrence and expression, and hurts the development of diagnostics and therapeutics tailored to individuals with particular mutations. This is affecting the hundreds of thousands of American women thought to have a BRCA mutation, and the thousands of scientists interested in doing research in this broad area.

Parthasarathy also notes that Myriad Genetics is one of the rare few genomics companies making a profit, which makes its business strategies attractive to other companies developing genetic technologies—a reality that could have an enduring impact on genetics research.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently filed a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision upholding patents on human genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. The Court will soon decide the case involving Myriad Genetics, Inc., which owns the patents to the two human genes. When mutated, these genes give a woman a high risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. As the sole patent holders of the genes, Myriad would also hold a monopoly on testing for the gene mutations.