MadSci Network: Genetics

Re: Is a gene sequence that cause disease the same sequence in everyone?

Date: Tue Apr 2 08:37:30 2002
Posted By: Doug Reed, Faculty, Toxinology & Aerobiology, USAMRIID
Area of science: Genetics
ID: 1017178057.Ge

The first question is relatively easy - no, not everyone who has breast 
cancer has inherited the alleles of BRCA1 or BRCA2 that can increase the 
risk of developing breast cancer. Alleles are different 'versions' of the 
same gene - i.e., one allele gives you brown, the other blue, still 
another green... and so on. When BRCA1 was discovered, only about 5 
percent of women with breast cancer had one or two copies of 'bad' allele 
of the gene - so the majority of breast cancer comes from other causes 
(primarily environmental). But in families with the 'bad' allele of BRCA1, 
the incidence of breast cancer (as well as other types) is phenomenally 

The second issue is a sticky one, and one that will be playing out for 
some time in the courts. My understanding is that 
companies/universities/etc... do not own patents on the genes themselves 
but own the rights to the use of the gene sequences in any therapeutics or 
diagnostics that might be used for treatment of patients. Confused? You 
should be! What this says is that a company doesn't own the BRCA1 gene but 
does own the rights (for example) to any diagnostic test that could be 
used to screen people for whether they have the 'bad' allele that can lead 
to cancer. And yes, this applies to any sequence of genetic material, 
whether it be for breast cancer, eye color, or even a sequence that we 
don't know what it's purpose is yet. This is one of the reasons that a 
race developed between the public and private efforts to sequence the 
human genome - many people were afraid that the companies backing the 
private effort would then patent virtually the entire genome and control 
the future of medical research.

Now one could argue that these companies do deserve the financial 
reimbursement for their efforts, which have come at considerable cost. The 
search for the breast cancer genes, for example, took many years and cost 
a considerable amount of money to accomplish. And patents are not 
permanent. But expect to hear about these issues a lot both in the press 
and the courts for some time to come.

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