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Gene Patents and Healthcare Inequality

Although the Supreme Court case involving Myriad Genetics' gene patents may seem like "scientific arcana," it was actually a contest about how biomedical intellectual property can lead to inequalities in the healthcare system, economist Joseph Stiglitz writes in the New York Times.

The core question before the court was a "seemingly technical" one about whether isolated, naturally occurring genes can be patented under US law, Stiglitz says, but these patents had "devastating real-world implications, because they kept the prices for diagnostics artificially high."

He writes that the $4,000 cost of the Mryiad BRACAnalysis test was far too high, and prohibited some women from accessing this important genetic information and from getting second opinions.

Stiglitz, who filed a declaration with the court on behalf of the Association for Molecular Pathology's argument, says that two women were denied the test because their Medicaid insurance reimbursement was too low, and other women were forced to make difficult decisions about having prophylactic mastectomies or having their ovaries removed "with severely incomplete information" and without second opinions.

Within hours of the court's ruling last month, he notes, a group of universities, patient advocates, researchers, and other labs announced that they plan to begin offering tests for BRCA genes, he notes, adding that Myriad's "innovation" was to identify existing genes, and not developing the test for them.

Stiglitz thinks that the "good news" out of the Myriad decision was the foundational decision that genes cannot be patented, because it meant that "there could now be competition to develop better, more accurate, less expensive tests for the gene," and that "poor women would have a more equal chance to live – in this case, to conquer breast cancer."