Saturday, May 01, 2010

Myriad Genetics Patents Your Genes

I heard it first on the PBS News Hour, and then on CBS’ 60 Minutes on April 4. There is a company named Myriad Genetics, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, that has patented the genes that cause breast and ovarian cancer. They are known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Myriad Genetics also has tests for mutations on these two cancer-predisposition genes, tests that many women like May Girard want to have done so they can know if they are at risk for these cancers. It could save their lives. The problem for Ms. Girard is that Myriad’s BRACAnalysis test is costly—around $3000—and when she tried to find another company to test her for these genes, she was told that only Myriad has the patent so only Myriad can administer the tests. No other company is even allowed to work with these genes. They belong to Myriad. Even though they’re in Ms. Girard’s body, and possibly your body as well? Even so.

The very notion seems bizarre, even impossible. How can a company own your genes? But the grim truth is that biotech companies have been busy buying up genes to the extent that, according to 60 Minutes, some twenty percent of all human genes have been patented so far. That’s 20% of your body that’s now owned by some corporate entity or other. And the rest will no doubt be patented soon.

This was the situation that outraged Ms. Girard and the ACLU (and other groups), which sued Myriad Genetics in court. The good news is that on March 30, a U.S. District Court ruled against Myriad’s exclusive ownership of these genes, and in favor of the ACLU. Judge Robert Sweet said in his ruling, “Because the claimed isolated DNA is not markedly different from native DNA as it exists in nature, it constitutes unpatentable subject matter” (AP, March 30, 2010). That is, companies cannot patent nature—which would seem to be a no-brainer. But to the geniuses of corporate America, it’s anything but. As a lawyer for Myriad, Brian Poissant, said: “This is not nature’s handiwork…this is the hard work of man” (Reuters, March 30). So Myriad’s reaction to the decision was, first, to say that the decision wouldn’t have much effect on its business (only a few of its patents were voided; it holds sixteen more on these genes); and, second, to say that it would ask the Court of Appeals to overturn the decision. Analysts noted that such appeals could keep the case in litigation limbo for years. Which is the reason that securities analysts opined that other companies, though apparently now allowed to produce competing tests for BRCA, will not do so, fearing that the ruling could be overturned by a higher court. Given the conservative makeup of the Supreme Court, this appeared to be a good bet.

So there you have it. The code to your body is fast becoming the patented property of corporate America—in much the same way that much of your food, when it is genetically modified, becomes the property of giant corporate monstrosities like Monsanto or Cargill. As to the wisdom of allowing the moral degenerates who run American business to own exclusive rights to the very template of your body, consider the advice that was given before Myriad ran into the above-named lawsuit. “My top idea for 2009 is Myriad Genetics” said one Mike Cintolo. In the Cabot Market Letter, Cintolo looked at what he called “the leader in the new field of cancer predisposition testing….Myriad Genetics has five tests on the market (covering colon, breast, ovarian, and skin cancer) that tell a patient if his genes make it more likely that he’ll get various types of cancer.” Which is to say, Myriad owns this stuff, and, medical ethics to the contrary, it ain’t giving it away. In addition, Myriad’s CEO and President, Peter Meldrum, was chosen best biotech CEO in 2008 by Adam Feuerstein. Why? For “pulling off one of the smartest drug licensing deals of all time.” What Meldrum did was sell Myriad’s already faltering Alzheimer’s treatment, Flurizan, to a Danish drugmaker, Lundbeck, in a deal that included “an up front $100 million payment. Unfortunately for Lundbeck, just a month later Flurizan went belly-up in a Phase III trial, but Myriad got to keep the non-refundable payment (the $100 million), which covered the cost of conducting a Phase III trial of the doomed drug. Meldrum effectively passed Myriad’s problem drug to Lundbeck and got $100 million in the process.” ( ).

In short, the clever (read 'sociopathic') head of Myriad gets high praise and adulation for what? for his ability to hoodwink another company into giving him $100 million for a drug he knew was doomed. Top businessman, CEO of the year! So what do you think? Feel comfortable entrusting your genes, your very life to the likes of Myriad Genetics and its CEO Meldrum? I mean, he’s probably a pillar of his community and his church as well. What could be bad?

Lawrence DiStasi

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