Supreme Court Decision Could Determine Future Of Genetic Research, Cancer Treatment

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - The Supreme Court took in oral arguments on Association For Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics.

At Kailos Genetics, they pay close attention.

They're doing all kinds of genetic research here, and if the high court upholds current practices, it could put a chill on the industry.

Kailos Chief Strategy Officer Mike Walters explains the basics of the case, "It really focuses on one company, Myriad Genetics, who holds a patent or multiple patents around two genes, BRCA-1 and BRCA-2.  These two genes are known to be able to predict a hereditary risk of cancer, both ovarian cancer and breast cancer."

When genes 'belong' to a company so to speak, other companies have to be cautious in their own research.

Patenting genes has become common practice.

Walters says, "About 20% are currently patented.  So that could potentially restrict other companies from providing a similar test.  It could prevent researchers from pursuing research opportunities to find new genetic variants within those same genes."

And that drives up prices for researchers and doctors.

Walters explains, "I think that whenever one company has exclusivity, and we know this from the pharmaceutical world when a company has exclusivity around a drug before a generic enters, they tend to get a higher price."

That means if the court upholds current practices, you'll have to pay far more for potentially life saving tests.

Still, it's not a simple decision.

On the business side - it makes sense to patent genes.

Walters explains, "A lot of the funding for basic research comes from the commercial side of the business.  So their argument is, without the incentives to have patents, to have protection, and an exclusivity period, they will no longer be able to invest their shareholder dollars into these areas."

So without patents, there's less incentive and money to spur research.

It was that promise that brought researchers to BRCA-1 and BRCA-2, the two genes in question in the lawsuit.

But from the research perspective, what's the point of finding the genes if they can't be used freely for the greater good?

Walters elaborates, "On the flip side of the coin are the researches that say, we can't continue to look at BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 to find if there are other novel mutations that Myriad has yet to discover, and even if we could, they would belong to Myriad."

Hence the quandary.

Walters sums it up, "There's always going to be a tension, and I think it's a productive tension within our country, between granting somebody exclusivity so they'll invest the dollars and at the same time ensuring that does not block access for broader research and access to patients.  And ultimately, it's up to the high court to make the decision on that compromise on where we find that balance."

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