Genetic origins of skin and lung cancer pinpointed.

24 December 2009

It is common knowledge that many forms of cancer have environmental as well as genetic components: for skin cancer, overexposure to sunlight can trigger its development. Lung cancer, of course, is blamed on smoking for lengthy periods of time. However, sometimes the genetic component can express itself without external assistance. Thus, it is worth noting that the genetic mutations which cause these two afflictions have been pinpointed by geneticists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute of the United Kingdom. The errors are very specific and should be readily detectable with a genetic workup. Something which I find surprising is the sheer size of the genetic defects: the mutation for skin cancer consists of 30,000-odd discrete errors in DNA while the mutation for lung cancer requires the presence of over 23,000 errors. The research team hopes that this knowledge will make it possible to develop treatment protocols customized to the patient as well as make it possible to develop tests which could detect the signs of cancer before the tumors are too far advanced for ready treatment.

However, what really concerns me is the fact that (in the United States, at least), it is legal for a company to isolate a gene which codes for a particular trait in the human genome and patent it. In fact, approximately 20% of the human genome has been patented since the law permitting it was passed in 1980. Never mind the fact that neither the human genome nor discrete genes were not invented but discovered (prior art, anyone?), patents are granted on those discoveries. Case in point, a corporation named Myriad Genetics owns patents on two genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) which are strongly implicated in breast and ovarian cancer. What this means is that licensing fees must be paid to Myriad if anyone is going to do research involving one of those genetic sequences (assuming that Myriad is willing to sign off on it; just because someone will have to pay you money does not mean that you have to accept it). This also means that you can't necessarily do anything with the knowledge unless the terms of licensing permit you to (like develop a test to detect the status of one of those genes). At this time there is a lawsuit against Myriad Genetics which makes the case that patenting genes violates the First Amendment by restricting research. The suit also states that you can't patent something that you didn't actually invent (vis a vis the human genome in general or a naturally occurring gene in particular). The suit hasn't been decided yet but a lot of people are keeping a close eye on this particular case because the health of a lot of people is at risk, to say nothing of a lot of post-graduate research.