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UW geneticist who discovered breast-cancer genes flying high over Supreme Court ruling

Seattle Times (WA)


June 14--The University of Washington geneticist who discovered the breast-cancer genes at the heart of the Supreme Court's landmark decision said Thursday that she's "as high as the flag on the Fourth of July."

"The Supreme Court ruling is splendid for patients, their families, their physicians, scientists and common sense," Mary-Claire King wrote in an email.

Other UW scientists echoed King's elation that the practice of patenting human genes has come to an end. Exclusive rights to genetic material have hampered research and forced patients to rely on a limited number of costly, commercial tests, said Gail Jarvik, head of medical genetics.

As soon as the ruling was issued, several companies announced the availability of new genetic screens that are cheaper than those produced by Myriad Genetics, the firm whose patents were at issue in the court case.

Patients can also now get a more sensitive and comprehensive type of screening test developed by King and her colleagues, who declined to patent their approach.

"It seems to me that the fruits of work paid for by the public ... should be freely available to the public," King wrote.

King's quest to prove that genetic mutations are responsible for breast cancers that run in families is dramatized in the new film "Decoding Annie Parker."

It was while she was working at the University of California, Berkeley that King discovered the first breast-cancer genes and mapped them to a specific chromosome. But scientists at the University of Utah, who won the race to clone the genes, patented them and formed Myriad Genetics to market the tests.

Myriad also controls a vast storehouse of testing data, which could be very useful to scientists working to tease out details about cancer susceptibility, said Bob Waterston, chair of the UW Department of Genome Sciences.

During the heyday of gene patents, in the 1990s, some UW researchers filed for "defensive" patents on genes, fearing that companies would scoop up the rights and shut down research. One patent-holding company threatened to sue molecular geneticist Jonathan Tait and his colleagues for conducting DNA tests on patients with neurological disorders.

Today, UW scientists probably hold fewer than 20 patents on human genes, said Jesse Kindra, director of intellectual-property management. None of those patents blocks others from using the genes, but the university plans to review its portfolio in light of the Supreme Court ruling, Kindra said.

Sandi Doughton at: 206-464-2491 or


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