The Role of Drug and Diagnostic Companies Cancer

The Role of Drug and Diagnostic Companies Cancer

The so-called breast cancer genes were first discovered in the early 1990s, when Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley, isolated a single gene on chromosome 17. This later became known as BRCA1. King showed that as many as 5-10% of all cases of breast cancer may be hereditary. By 1994, Myriad Genetics cloned BRCA1 and filed a patent on the gene. The effect was to make screening extremely expensive. After 20 years of court battles, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such a patent is not permitted because genes are a product of nature. As a result, the cost of testing for mutations on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes should decline from its current high of $4000. Many genetic tests used to detect other conditions cost in the $100-200 range.

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The biotechnology industry and academics continue to look for better and cheaper ways to detect cancer and cancer risk. Molecular scientists can identify all of an individual’s genes at least 20,000 of them for about $1,000, which comes to about five cents per gene. One company, 23andMe, charges people $99 to see if they have gene variants that put them at higher risk for different diseases.

Biologists are genetically engineering algae to produce a drug that targets specific cancer cells. Further development in the fields of genetics and genomics will bring about more opportunities to diagnose and treat cancer. See “For Further Exploration” at the end of this chapter for links to reliable information about genetic testing.

Are Human Genes Patentable? Annals of Internal Medicine, June 11; Miller Tran, et al. 2013. Production of unique immunotoxin cancer therapeutics in algal chloroplasts. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(1): E15-E22; Szabo, Liz. 2013. Angelina Jolie’s News Prompts Women To Call Doctors. USA Today, May 15. (, retrieved June 19, 2013). is the first line of defense. By being aware of the risk factors in your own life, your immediate family’s cancer history, and your own history, you may bring a problem to the attention of a doctor long before it would be detected at a routine physical (see the box “Genetic Testing”). In addition to self-monitoring, the ACS recommends routine cancer checkups, as well as specific screening tests for certain cancers (Table 12.2).

Physicians need to know the exact size and location of a tumor if they are to treat it effectively. A biopsy may be performed to confirm the tumor’s type. Imaging studies or exploratory surgery may be required to identify a cancer’s stage that is, to determine the tumor’s size and see if the cancer has spread to other sites. Several diagnostic imaging techniques are available, including MRI, computed tomography (CT) scanning, and ultrasonography.

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