Angelina Jolie's Double Mastectomy Reignities Gene Patenting Debate

Supreme Court to Decide if Gene Patents Are Constitutional in Summer

Angelina Jolie's revelation that she had undergone a double mastectomy has reignited the debate over the patenting of human genes and the implications that it has on future research.

During an op-ed that was published in The New York Times late Monday Jolie revealed that between February and April she underwent several surgeries to remove her breasts and construct implants. This action was taken after she found out that she carried the BRCA 1 gene that has been shown to greatly increase a woman's chance of developing breast cancer.

Now the debate focuses on whether or not biotech companies should be allowed to patent human genes.

The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in which biotech giant Myriad Genetics argued that they should be able to keep their patents on two human genes that are known to be a precursor to breast cancer.

But opponents, such as the Association for Molecular Pathology and other scientific organizations, refute the idea of patenting DNA given that it is in all of us, while also arguing that allowing genes to be patented will severely curtail scientific research involving patented genes.

Myriad Genetics is based in Salt Lake City and originally filed for a patent for the BRCA1 gene in 1994 and for the BRCA2 gene in 1995. They developed what is known as BRCA Analysis, which tests for mutations in both genes that are thought to lead to breast cancer.

"People with a mutation in either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have risks of up to 87% for developing breast cancer and up to 44% for developing ovarian cancer by age 70," according to Myriad's website. "Mutation carriers previously diagnosed with cancer also have a significantly increased risk of developing a second primary cancer."

The legal case against Myriad was filed in 2009 by the Public Patent Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union with a federal judge in New York ruling in their favor by invalidating the patents in 2010. After several appeals, a U.S. Court of Appeals panel ruled 2-1 that human genes can be patented and it is that decision Public Patent and the ACLU have appealed to the Supreme Court.

Currently, about 20 percent of genes are covered by a U.S. patent, according to Public Patent.

The Supreme Court's decision is expected this summer.