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Gene Patent Overturned: Bioethics in Action

This week a federal judge in the USA overturned patents on the BRCA1 and 2 genes, which are held by biotechnology company Myriad.The genes are implicated in breast and cervical cancer in women, specifically those who have a hereditary risk of developing cancer. Myriad’s gene sequence test is good at detecting sequences that indicate risk in these women, and they have patented this sequence of genes. The American Civil Liberties Union, among others, have been campaigning against the patenting of genes – products of nature.

Here is a really good video (45 mins) from Duke University. Prof Robert Cook-Deegan, the director of the Center for Genome Ethics, Law & Policy at Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, discusses issues surrounding the patenting of genes, including the case of Myriad Genetics:

The news story from Science magazine is here, and makes for good reading.

Also, read this neat article from BadScience: “I patent your ass. And your leg…

Since the Human Genome Project, up to 20% of human genes have been patented by their discoverers. By patenting the genes – which are present in all of us – the companies responsible have control over what can be done with regards to research, diagnostic testing and treatment.

Here is a short video on the BRCA1 gene (critical in women), from OvarianCancerDr:


1. What was the effect of the patent on research and medicine?

2. What is the effect of the patent being overturned now likely to be?

3. Explain the significance of the clause that states “…[patent #5,747,282] makes claim to any sequence of 15 nucleotides, the “letters” of the genetic code, coding for any part of the protein made by the BRCA1 gene.

4. Who are the major stakeholders in gene patenting and the current Myriad case?

5. What would you do to balance the needs of the biotech industry with freedom to research science without fear of litigation or being blocked?

6. What are the strengths and weaknesses of genetic testing services?

7. What would you do if you knew you had a family history of a type of cancer and knew there was a test you could take to assess your risk?

8. If you could have a full genome-scan done, would you? Why or why not?

9. From a TOK perspective, how does this higlight the issues of ‘knowledge’? Who ‘owns’ knowledge if it is discovered? Would the case be different if Myriad were patenting a gene that they had created rather than one which already exists?

Resource List:

BRCA1 and 2 genes, from the National Cancer Institute

Gene Patents, from the American Civil Liberties Union

Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy

Bad Science article, from Ben Goldacre

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