The landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling to negate long-standing patents on DNA sequences have already allowed competitors to offer BRCA1 and 2 breast cancer tests at drastically reduced prices to consumers.
For those who follow consumer technology news, it’s no new revelation that patents are a big business: tech giants Apple, Samsung, and others are continuously suing one another over patent infringement, and collecting fat royalty checks on each other’s sales as a result. Few, however, were aware that the DNA testing industry had been gridlocked over the administering of the BRCA1 (and to a lesser degree BRCA2) genetic tests for breast cancer prevalence until the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent landmark ruling that Myriad Genetics, the once-exclusive holder of a patent for the specific genetic stand, no longer had exclusive claim over it, nor the right to charge other DNA labs prohibitive licensing fees to conduct the BRCA1 and BRCA2 tests.
As a result of the ruling, the floodgates have opened up, with DNA labs nationwide offering the same test that once cost $3,000 from Myriad (and much more from other labs, thanks to the added royalty expenses) for a fraction of the cost.
In a recent article on AZCentral, writer Ken Alltucker points out that drastically lower prices on these tests appeared across the industry “within hours,” and that “. . . other labs announced they would offer less-expensive versions of diagnostic tests that detect potentially harmful mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.” He went on to explain that, “A Texas lab, DNATraits, said it would begin selling the test for $995. Ambry Genetics, a Southern California lab, said it is now taking orders for the breast- and ovarian-cancer gene tests starting at $2,200. GeneDx, a Maryland company, said it will soon begin selling the test though it would not disclose its price.”
These are just a few examples of how the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which in itself set forth an important ideological precedent when it comes to whether or not natural standards like genetics can be patented, had a very practical effect on industry. An unintended consequence, perhaps, but one that many DNA testing labs across the country had long anticipated. Once the ruling came down in their favor, companies like DNATraits here in Texas were already prepared to offer the test to consumers at a considerably lower price — $995 for the BRCA1 test at their lab is exactly the same test offered by Myriad, but costs less than a brand-new Apple MacBook Air. “Retail” prices like these, together with actress Angelina Jolie’s high-profile use of the test to decide on a preemptive double mastectomy, are likely to create a “perfect storm” of demand and availability for women nationwide.
[adrotate banner=”9″]Of course, in spite of the fact that BRCA breast cancer tests are now being priced with the consumer in mind, ordering the test is still not an over-the-counter experience. Doctors still have to order the test on behalf of their patients, much like a prescription. And in spite of the Supreme Court decision and Jolie’s headline news story, doctors and insurance companies are not necessarily as excited about mainstream adoption of the use of BRCA1 and 2 tests as the public is.
Alltucker’s article notes, “You have name recognition already and have gotten in with all the doctors, and insurance companies know how to bill your tests, said Mary Anthony Merchant, an intellectual-property attorney with Ballard Spahr, a Philadelphia-based law firm with offices in Phoenix. “A competitor may come in and do the testing differently. Will they be as reliable?”
To be sure, mainstream genetic testing is one of the most vanguard industries in the U.S. today — no one is currently able to predict its growth and revenue potentials, nor the consequences it will bring to research, medicine, and even its cultural impact. Science fiction films like Gattaca (1997) envision a future where DNA-perfected “designer people” are given societal preference over those “faith birth” individuals with “invalid” genetic code, thus creating a DNA-based caste system as well as a new kind of outgroup.
Key scenes from Gattaca:
It still remains to be seen if the after-effects of the supreme Court ruling and the audacious decision of a famous actress to take highly invasive surgical steps to avoid a disease that had yet to affect her will be the harbingers of a brave new world where DNA dominates not only research and treatment, but also industry, commerce, and the path that peoples’ lives eventually take. What is already a reality, however, is that DNA testing for average citizens has arrived. And where it will lead is bound to make for an interesting, ongoing story.