Court ruling may open up breast cancer gene tests


Published: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 3:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 3:16 p.m.

A ruling by the Supreme Court that human genes can’t be patented is expected to increase access and drop the cost for tests for gene mutations that greatly raise the risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer.

In a bit of a mixed message, the court unanimously decided that certain types of gene tests may still be protected by patents, yet it struck down patents that a company has long held for BRCA genes. The company makes the only test for two of those breast cancer genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2.

“It appears that it will allow the market to open up so that other laboratories can offer the test,” said Rebecca Nagy, a genetics counselor at Ohio State University and president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors.

Hours after the ruling, one company — DNATraits, part of Houston-based Gene By Gene, Ltd. — said it would offer BRCA gene testing in the United States for $995 — less than a third of the current price.

A primer on the case:

Q: What did the court say?

A: Patents held by Myriad Genetics Inc. on BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are not valid, because isolating a naturally occurring segment of DNA cannot be patented. We all have two copies of these genes; mutations in one of them can give a woman up to an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer and up to a 54 percent risk for ovarian cancer.

Q: How many people have them?

A: In the U.S., about 5 percent to 10 percent of breast cancers are thought to be due to bad BRCA genes.

Among breast cancer patients, BRCA mutations are carried by 5 percent of whites and 12 percent of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews.

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