Testing for Breast Cancer
Angelina Jolie and the Myriad Muse
The recent media attention given to Angelina Jolie and her decision for a double mastectomy once again highlights breast cancer and its devastating impact on human beings.
Sadly, only once breast cancer reaches celebrity status does it manage to rise above the clutter of modern lives and grab our attention.
Angelina Jolie's case not only reminds us of lethal cancers but also highlights the increasing incompatibility between human lives and private medical care and research.
Angelina Jolie decided to go ahead with this operation after she discovered (by diagnosis) that her body is carrying a mutated version of the BRCA1 gene. This gene dramatically increases ones risk of breast and ovarian cancer. It produces a protein called Breast Cancer Type 1 Susceptibility Protein.
Amongst other places in ones body, the protein is naturally released in the breast tissue where it helps to repair damaged DNA (or destroy cells if the DNA cannot be repaired.)
If the BRCA1 gene is damaged itself, the damaged DNA is then not repaired properly and this increases the risk of breast cancer by way of mutation.
While the relationship of increased cancer risk and "bad" genes is nothing new, what is interesting is the fact that the BRCA1 gene (testing process for the mutation) is owned via a patent by one company.
The implication of this ownership is that only this company is allowed to test for this gene. The patent blocks any other company to develop diagnostic tools and procedures for the same gene.
Like Monsanto, this company aggressively protects its patents and the issue is presently with the US Supreme Court that is trying to decide if human genes can be patented.
If the recent court cases with Monsanto (and public opposition) are anything to go by and if this company (Myriad Genetics) wins the case, one can probably be assured of high medical costs, monopolistic business practices, questionable ethics, environmental and human toxification, questionable science and access inequality (poor people will not be able to afford the tests)
There is already controversy over Myriad's high prices and the inability to get a second opinion because of this patent protection. If you have some Myriad stock, your shares have gone up this month because this patented testing procedure has just been given celebrity status - albeit at enormous personal cost to Angelina Jolie. Some may struggle with this concept of money earned by suffering.
The test currently costs over $3,000 and while other institutions can do the same test at a cheaper price, they are not allowed to. Myriad argues that patents and costs are necessary to maintain research and development in this industry.
While this point has merit, what is the cost of human life to maintain this research and development?
The patent can be the difference between life and death. Is this not the territory of a Supreme Being? Are human beings capable enough to handle this type of responsibility? Is a company allowed to own a patent that has this kind of power?
The Supreme Court will look at the legality of the case, as they did with the recent Monsanto vs Vernon Bowman case, and in my opinion, probably rule to uphold Myriad's patent case. By all legal definitions, it will probably be the correct ruling.
But for those of us that attach value to the lives of human beings, a ruling in favour of the patent protection is not a ruling in favour of mankind.
Much of historical medical decision making and integrity was underpinned by the Hippocratic Oath. One wonders if anyone in the Myriad Supreme Court case will allow this ethical medical pillar to have any bearing on the case. (Probably unlikely - fewer people in the medical profession actually take the Hippocratic Oath these days)
In times like these, we hope and pray that the Supreme Court will be guided by teachings that have stood test of time.
The point of this article is not to make reckless accusations, decide right from wrong or point fingers, but rather to ask a question, how are humans going to get profits + patents + food + medicine to work together for the benefit of all mankind?