By Ellen T. Matloff
Ellen T. Matloff, M.S. received a Bachelor of Science degree cum laude from Union College, and a Master’s in Genetic Counseling from Northwestern University. Ms. Matloff currently serves as the Director of Cancer Genetic Counseling at Yale Cancer Center in New Haven, Connecticut and previously worked at SUNY Health Sciences Center in Syracuse, NY. She is board certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling and is a member of the National Society of Genetic Counselors, the American Society of Human Genetics and the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Should we, as genetic counselors, care about gene patents?
We have plenty of other things to worry about: patient care, publication pressures, administrative responsibilities, growing caseloads, shrinking health care budgets (I could go on, but why raise our collective blood pressure?) — so why, oh why, would we add gene patents to this list?
Because gene patents have a major impact on many things that affect our practice. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Cost of genetic testing, which influences: Patient access and insurability
- Market competition, or lack thereof, which affects: Cost (see above), our ability as practitioners (or as a Society) to drive change within commercial genetic laboratories regarding issues such as price setting, marketing, advertising, turnaround time, reporting mechanisms, etc.
- Clinical research, clinical research, clinical research. It is pretty hard to enroll patients in a study with an extra $3000 price tag per subject. Even a small study of 100 patients would cost more than $300,000 in genetic testing costs alone if patients were to receive their genetic testing results. And as those of us who have written grants know all too well, 100 subjects is a small ‘n’ and $300k is a huge chunk of most available grants.
In short, a strictly enforced patent creates a monopoly. Our patients need a test, we have to order it from one company, and they hold all of the cards. Lump it or leave it.
In the case of BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing, the cost of testing was $1600 in private laboratories in 1997. Twelve years later with the advent of more efficient and less expensive technology, the cost of the testing has not dropped, but soared: $3120 for full sequencing + an additional $650 for BART analysis = >$3770 per patient. Cha ching!
Perhaps in response to rising costs and direct-to-consumer advertising, many insurance companies have tightened their belts and their inclusion criteria for testing. HealthNet tried to drop coverage for genetic testing altogether two years ago, before an angry mob of rioters (also called genetic counselors) bled the story to the press. Medicare will now only pay for testing in a person who already has cancer. Kind of obliterates the whole preventive healthcare angle, doesn’t it?
For all of the above reasons, genetic counselors should care about gene patenting. This is important, its effects are far-reaching, and this is precedent-setting. Educate yourself and educate others.
Here is a great clip about Myriad’s BRCA patent from the documentary film In the Family.