Some Jewish women could face discrimination over access to tests for hereditary breast cancer, the Scientist magazine reports. Geneticists at a meeting held last week said that changes made to a patent relating to the BRCA2 gene, owned by US firm Myriad Genetics, could mean that women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent might not be able to get tested in some countries. Researchers attending the European Society for Human Genetics meeting in Prague told the Scientist that Myriad has limited its claims for the patent, ahead of a challenge to be heard by the European Patent Office (EPO).
Most breast and ovarian cancers are not inherited, but around 5-10 per cent are caused by inherited mutations - many of them in one of two genes, called BRCA1 and BRCA2. Myriad Genetics has faced criticism from scientists, governments and patient groups opposed to the patents it holds on tests that look for mutations in these two genes. There were concerns that the patents were too restrictive, and could give Myriad a monopoly on BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic testing. The company required that all tests were to be carried out in its laboratories in Salt Lake City, Utah at a cost of over $2600.
Myriad originally filed several patents relating to the BRCA1 gene, three of them in Europe. However, the EPO revoked one of these patents entirely in May 2004, and cut the scope of the remaining two in January 2005. An earlier ruling granted a Europe-wide patent for a BRCA2 gene test to Cancer Research UK (CRUK). The charity grants free licences to European laboratories that want to use the test, unlike Myriad. However, the current legal situation regarding the two BRCA2 patents is unclear, and a group of scientists will argue that Myriad was wrongfully awarded the patent, in a challenge due to be heard by the EPO on 29 June.
Now, Myraid has changed the wording of its BRCA2 patent, so that it only covers one gene mutation, which occurs most frequently in Ashkenazi Jews. 'This is definitely not the way to go', said geneticist Geert-Jan van Ommen, 'because on the one hand, you would have to ask patients who come into your clinic and want to be tested if they are Ashkenazi Jews. And then if they are, it would block them from being diagnosed in countries that tend not to pay serious licences for the diagnosis'. In the forthcoming hearing, the Belgian Society of Human Genetics and the French Institut Curie will argue that there is no way to define when a woman is Ashkenazi Jewish, and that a patent should not be granted on one population and not another.