Robert Cook-Deegan contributed to this commentary. Dr. Cook-Deegan is Director of the Center for Genome Ethics, Law & Policy at Duke University Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy’s and is currently on leave at the Fondation Brocher in Hermance, Switzerland.
The past few months have brought a number of significant research and commercial developments in the BRCA diagnostic testing market, particularly in Europe. These developments have been met by enigmatic comments from the management of Myriad Genetics, the sole provider of commercial BRCA diagnostic testing in the United States and a defendant in ongoing and closely-scrutinized gene patent litigation. What can these recent developments tell us about Myriad’s future plans in both Europe and the U.S.?
The Next Generation of BRCA Testing. Myriad’s current BRCA diagnostic test, BRACAnalysis (pdf), uses a combination of two traditional technologies—Sanger sequencing and PCR—to identify mutations associated with a significant risk of breast cancer and/or ovarian cancer in the BRCA1 and BRAC2 genes. Although Myriad has dabbled with next-generation sequencing technologies, Myriad has yet to announce any concrete plans to apply any of the increasingly numerous and powerful next-generation sequencing technologies to its BRACAnalysis testing.
Others, however, are moving rapidly in exactly this direction.
In another significant international development, on July 6, the Court of Justice of the European Union (more commonly known by its old name, the European Court of Justice or ECJ) ruled against Monsanto Technology LLC (pdf) in its suit against an Argentine company called Cetera and several other parties.
The Court sat in a 13-member Grand Chamber, which is eurojargon for “really big deal,” and issued a ruling which leaves gene patents essentially intact but warns national courts to construe them carefully. (Travel advisory aside: If you ever have a chance to visit the Court in Luxembourg, do. Its magnificently robed judges sit in medieval splendor in a hideous modern building. Lawyers (usually several per case), robed almost as magnificently, read long and pompous arguments that are translated into many languages. The judges, apparently having already decided the case, ask no questions and seem to pay no attention. The rulings are logically convoluted and delivered in baroque language. Everyone seems immensely pleased with the spectacle.)
On Tuesday, June 9, 2010, several plaintiffs, including a breast cancer patient and a cancer advocacy group, sued in a Sydney, Australia federal court to invalidate Myriad Genetics’ patents on the breast cancer susceptibility genes BRCA-1 and 2. According to published reports and comments by Australian patent law experts, the suit substantially tracks the much-publicized one filed in New York by the American Civil Liberties Union. In particular, this suit is also a frontal attack on the Myriad patents, seeking a judgment that genes in isolation from the body are products of nature and thus not patentable inventions.
The factual background in Australia seems a bit different. Myriad has granted an exclusive license to perform BRCA gene tests to a Melbourne company called Genetic Technologies Limited, which is a co-defendant in the case. But GTL has been reported to have “gifted” its patent rights to health care institutions, and not to charge royalties. Nonetheless, the plaintiffs’ lawyers have expressed concern about the possibility of GTL exploiting their monopoly as in the U.S., where the tests cost over $3,000. They note that on two earlier occasions GTL sent letters to hospitals telling them to stop testing. A number of Australian sources have also worried aloud about the implications of the patents for medical research.