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Surprising Science

Who Owns Your Genes? Hint: Not You.

You think you own the right to your own genetics, but actually someone else owns 20 percent of your genes. How can that be? Biotech companies are snatching up the patent rights.  

What’s the Latest Development?

When Lisbeth Ceriani was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer at age 42, it was a sure sign to her doctors that genetics were in play. After overcoming the cancer, she wanted to know what were the chances of contracting it again. The best way for her to find out was to test her BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. “If mutations are found, the risk of getting breast cancer is five times more likely. The risk of getting ovarian cancer is 40 times more likely. But the test is patented by a biotech company called Myriad Genetics.” Because the test was expensive and not entirely covered by Ceriani’s insurance, it took her a year and a half to secure a grant to fund the test. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Genetics professor Steven Salzberg, Ph.D., University of Maryland, says that while companies like Myriad Genetics should not be able to patent individual genes because they are products of nature, they are currently allowed to: “They basically own those genes. If you want to look at a gene that’s patented from your own genome, you have to pay a licensing fee to the patent holder.” The advance of technology may right this wrong before the law does: “Right now, it costs $10,000 to get your genome sequenced. But experts say in a few years, that cost will be less than $1,000. Then it will be possible to have your genes sequenced for all inherited mutations.”


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