By HANNAH QUADRIO
When Angelina Jolie removed both her breasts to minimise the risk of cancer – we all took notice. But there is more to this story than meets the eye.
Angelina told the world the reason she did it. Testing revealed that she carried the mutated BRCA1 gene which greatly increased her risk of breast cancer. It wasn’t a flippant move by a gorgeous celebrity; it was an informed decision by a woman who’d done her research.
Angelina’s announcement has led women around the world to think more about their risk of breast and ovarian cancer and encouraged many to book in for a test to see if they carry the same mutated BRCA1 gene. For Australian women, if a family cancer clinic determines that their risk of carrying the mutated BRCA1 gene is more than ten per cent, Medicare covers the cost of the test. If your risk is less than 10 per cent, the test will set you back over $2,000.
As important as they are, these tests are not cheap. Whether the cost of these tests will rise or fall in the future will largely depend on a legal case to be heard in the Federal Court in August.
The case, called Cancer Voices v Myriad Genetics, is about whether a pharmaceutical company can “patent” (that is, own) genetic material once it has been isolated from the human body. The Federal Court will decide if a pharmaceutical company called Myriad Genetics can own a patent over the isolated BRCA1 gene.
And here’s the rub for Australian women. If a company can “own” the isolated BRCA1 gene, they can decide how much the diagnostic test for mutations on that gene costs.
At the moment, the situation isn’t too bad. The pharmaceutical companies are allowing public health facilities and clinics to conduct the BRCA1 test without having to pay big fees. But there is no guarantee this practice will continue. In fact, if the Federal Court decides that the patent over the isolated BRCA1 gene is valid, Myriad and its licensees may enforce their patent rights – and the cost of the tests will skyrocket.
Alternatively, if the Federal Court finds that the patent is invalid, genetic testing could become cheaper, as scientists are able use the isolated genetic material to develop alternate diagnostic tests.