The following is a guest post from Ellen Matloff, Director of the Cancer Genetic Counseling Program at Yale University. Ellen has been a pioneer in the field of genetic counseling for BRCA+ patients, and she was one of the lead plaintiffs in The Association of Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. This post is the result of a lively discussion we had about the future of Young Previvors and the fields of law and genetics.
After 14 years of battling Myriad Genetics over the patent on BRCA, I am painfully familiar with the many issues associated with this Supreme Court case: direct-to-consumer marketing, price gauging, splintering off sections of the test — you name it, I’ve considered it. Or so I thought. But when I sat in front of the Supreme Court on April 15, 2013 I realized there is another issue at hand — very few people, even at the level of the Supreme Court in the United States of America — are truly well versed in both law and genetics.
This became evident as the attorneys for both sides tried, with varying degrees of success, to use analogies to explain the patent issue to the Court. The examples ranged from, “If you found that chewing a leaf of a rare tree in the Amazon cured cancer, could you patent the tree?” to “If you take a tree and make cuts here and there to create a baseball bat, can you patent the baseball bat? Or is it a product of nature?”. One Justice tried an example of her own by asking, “If I create a new cookie using sugar, salt, butter and other ingredients, I can patent the cookie, but how about the ingredients?”
As I sat in the courtroom I thought to myself that all of these examples had one thing in common — none of them were dead on. As a genetic counselor who spends my time explaining difficult genetic concepts to patients I realized that as we move forward, we will need young, smart minds who intimately understand both law and genetics. What a great niche for young attorneys to create for themselves! Get an undergraduate degree in Genetics or Molecular Biology and then go to law school! Or go to law school and then do a year externship in a DNA diagnostics laboratory! I imagine that fewer than .01% of all attorneys would have this expertise, in a legal climate when biotech and genetics are booming and legal issues around both will abound.
There are many lessons to be learned from the patent on BRCA1 and BRCA2. I hope that the Supreme Court will agree that products of nature should not be patented, and that such patents can harm patients. One added lesson I learned is that the market is wide open for young minds at the intersection of genetics and law — lead the way.