|MadSci Network: Genetics|
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 high. 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.
Try the links in the MadSci Library for more information on Genetics.