Geneticists oppose singling out Jewish women in European breast cancer patent

Jewish women in Europe may face genetic discrimination in access to breast cancer diagnosis if the patent on the BRCA2 gene, which is currently being disputed, is not withheld by the European Patent Office (EPO) on June 29. The European Society for Human Genetics (ESHG) is strongly opposed to the selection of a particular racial group as a diagnostic target in a gene patent claim and is calling on the EPO to take action to prevent this situation.

On June 29 the EPO will hear the opposition of several European genetic societies and research institutes against the patent on the second breast cancer gene, BRCA2, to which the US-based Myriad Genetics holds the exclusive, worldwide license. In preparation of these hearings, the patent owners have now rewritten the original claims in the patent, to specifically protect the identification of one particular mutation frequent in the Jewish population - "for diagnosing a predisposition to breast cancer in Ashkenazi-Jewish women". This is the first time that a racial or ethnic group has been specifically singled out as a diagnostic target in this way.

"This is not the way to go for genetic testing", said Professor Gert-Jan van Ommen, from the Center of Human and Clinical Genetics, at the Leiden University Medical Center, The Netherlands. "What it means in practice is that genetic centres that do not have licences for this test or where the healthcare systems cannot afford to pay for it may be forced to deny it to Ashkenazi Jewish women." One of 100 Ashkenazi Jewish women carries the BRCA2 mutation which predisposes her to breast cancer, and gives a 65-70% chance of developing the disease.

The ESHG is calling on the EPO to rescind this patent claim on ethical and practical grounds. At their recent meeting in Prague, the board and members agreed their strong opposition to this development.

"Almost all European geneticists are very unhappy about the introduction of specifi

Contact: Mary Rice
European Society of Human Genetics

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