BRCA1 & 2 Genes and the Risk of Breast Cancer

Gene patenting was and remains a controversial topic. In short, scientists or the entities that fund their research, may patent

  1. an isolated gene sequence and

  2. the processes for obtaining or using it.

The patent grants them exclusive rights for 20 years.

How can a man or woman claim creatorship and ownership over a gene, or any other nature-made organism, such as an apple or an animal? For a long time we couldn’t. Then in 1980 in the case of Diamond vs. Chakrabarty, scientists invented a bacteria that would consume crude oil from an oil spill and, naturally, they wanted the rights to their creation. The Supreme Court ruled that any organism as long as it is chemically or otherwise created or altered or isolated from its naturally-occurring state by human hands is patentable. Thus, the patent owner could charge any sum of money for the use of such an organism or substance, having total sovereignty over its life, development and application.

One might think this would spark a mad race to create viable, justifiable “alterations” for common items, being that the inventor of such a new product stands to gain a perpetual, residual, massive income…and one would be right. This of course isn’t a new idea. Papa Pharma has been working this angle for more than a century. Flowers, herbs and foods can’t be patented, so he has to make his own and then convince us that we need his remedy. Now Mama Farma enters the scene. Since the ruling over 30 years ago, patents for food-GMOs have multiplied and are spreading across the earth. And now all of a sudden, one growing gene giant has come like a flash to the world’s attention. Meet Myriad Genetics.

Myriad Genetics’ Gene Patenting Windfall

Myriad Genetics patented the isolated forms of two “breast cancer risk” genes, BRCA 1 in 1994 and BRCA 2 in 1995. Their exclusive rights to the genes have restricted 20 years’ worth of research by other labs, and also prevent others from viewing results of their current lab work. Now I’m not complaining, I’m just wondering how this is for the common good, or to save women’s lives?

They also own the diagnostic applications of the genes so that anyone wanting to test for BRCA 1&2 must go through a Myriad or Myriad-licensed lab. This spells “monopoly.” Myriad can charge whatever they want and, ultimately, they can diagnose without scrutiny as there is no second opinion for the test. It’s a small wonder, then, that an estimated 85% of their half-a-billion in yearly profits are generated from diagnostics.

After her double mastectomy Angelina Jolie brought significant attention to BRCA diagnostics. She happens to be a mega star; she happens to have been diagnosed as carrying the gene with an 87% chance of breast cancer, and a 50% chance of ovarian; her decision happens to have earned enormous publicity for Myriad’s golden egg test. Since her announcement, Myriad’s stocks have reportedly increased by 4%, and more women are worrying that they might have the gene and not know it.

Notably, Myriad is just shy of the expiry dates for their patents, BRCA 1 expiring in 2014, and of BRCA 2 in 2015. Largely because of earnings from the diagnostics the company went from small to publicly traded, but in all these years the general public hasn’t heard much about Myriad, having not nearly enough fear to send us in droves to the $4000+ examination. The clock ticking, Angelina’s case may have been either awesome timing and dumb luck, or a well-crafted PR campaign. Don’t get me wrong, Ms. Jolie followed the instructions of the doctors she trusted, and she made a very brave decision for life. But CEOs are expected to be opportunistic, and this gave them a big splash of acclaim.

Now, this is all well and good if the test really is “preventative,” as claimed, and if it will save lives. The question is, is it necessary or isn’t it?

BRCA 1 & 2 – Do you have the genes and should you be afraid?

The BRCA genes are extremely uncommon. A reported average of 5% (some sources say 2% or less) of breast cancer diagnoses are a result of the BRCA gene. Angelina was diagnosed with a high risk, but that risk may be significantly lower for the majority of affected women. The hook for the $4000 test is that no one knows whether they’re part of the fractional percentile carrying it; and Myriad doesn’t profit from women carrying or getting treatment; they profit from testing.

Dr. Funmi Olopade weighs in on the discussion. She was appointed to the National Cancer Advisory Board by President Obama, is Director at the Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics, a skilled oncologist and an expert in cancer risk assessment. In an interview with ABC news, when asked about Jolie’s decision and the growing concern over the BRCA genes, she commented with a wide smile and an assurance,

“No, we’re not going back there. Women are not gonna’ go and have mastectomy out of fear and anxiety… There was a time when the only choice women had was to have breasts removed, to have radical surgery, but we are way beyond that now. There are options for women, even the women with the highest risk.”

Some experts would even say that BRCA 1 & 2 testing is a glorified and unnecessarily costly way of diagnosis, as health journalist Dr. Mercola summarized,

“…for screening and therapeutic purposes, BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genetic testing is really little more than an expensive way of ‘determining what can be accomplished more expeditiously by speaking with your patient,’ since the DNA base pair sequence in all humans is 99.6% identical…, there are thousands of sequence variants of the BRCA1 and BRCA 2 genes… [and] family history trumps BRCA 1 and 2 status.”

Anti-Cancer: Epigenetics, Nutrition and Lifestyle

Even for those carrying the genes, there’s a growing league of scientists and clinicians who believe it’s entirely possible to prevent disease-causing genes from being expressed, naturally and completely without medical intervention.

Scientific advances are leaning towards epigenetics as the true knowledge wellspring for cancer and other disease prevention, particularly when we’re talking about genetic predispositions. Instead of breast amputation, epigeneticists say cut off bad lifestyle habits and take on good ones, and your body will never “activate” cancer.

Good nutrition and a healthy emotional life free of chronic stress, a predisposition to accentuate the positive, a temperament that encourages life-promoting hormones and chemicals to circulate lavishly and in correct balance; vibrant body-life through exercise and lots of fresh air and sunlight; these are the conditions that instruct your DNA readers to ignore deadly codes and express life.

Empowered for Health

The core tenet of epigenetics is empowerment and, secondarily, that all of our bodily functions, the way we feel on a daily basis and whether we’re healthy or sick are all the result of the internal environment which we create. If we foster an inner atmosphere of health through good attitude and lifestyle, then health will manifest in our bodily members.

Believers of this “new science” are putting their faith in the original design of the human body; namely, that if, using the power of our minds and our intention to overcome threats against spiritual, emotional and mental life, we’ll also keep healthy cells healthy, and they will do their job in eliminating threats to physical life. Then, rogue cancer cells simply won’t stand a chance against the happy, healthy environment of their well-tended look-alikes.

In a recent article in the New York Times a few experts shared their thoughts:

“Think of it [cancer] as this kid in a bad neighborhood,” said Dr. Susan Love, a breast cancer surgeon and president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. “You can take the kid out of the neighborhood and put him in a different environment and he will behave totally differently.”

And while admitting that there is far more to investigate and discover before throwing in the towel on all other cancer treatments, Dr. Robert Weinberg, cancer researcher and expert at M.I.T. affirmed for us, “This notion is not a flash in the pan that will come and go.”

These new thinkers from the old school are a far cry from urging women to amputate their breasts. Since Jolie’s announcement there’s been a loud cry from conventional practitioners and natural health gurus alike not to be thrown into a panic and rush either to the test, or to severe, invasive procedures such as a mastectomy. In most cases, there will be a better way.

Check out also Bruce Lipton’s talk about The Biology of Belief



Wikipedia, Biological Patent/Gene patents, Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer and Radical Mastectomy—Are Women Being Misled into a False Sense of Security?

NYT, Once derided, old ideas back in cancer fight


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