Researchers face patent race for breast cancer gene

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 06 January 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:12
  1. Owen Dyer

    A team of Anglo-American researchers who recently announced their discovery of a second gene that causes breast cancer now seems likely to face a challenge from a rival American project. Myriad Genetics, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, claims to have beaten the Institute of Cancer Research in a race to isolate the gene BRCA2 and has filed an application for a US patent.

    The British team, led by Dr Mike Stratton of the Institute of Cancer Research, has also filed a preliminary application for a European patent in the name of CRC Technology, the institute's technology transfer company. Myriad Genetics, meanwhile, has announced that it will put the molecular sequence of BRCA2 in the US government's GenBank genetic data library, where it will be open to public scrutiny. It is not yet certain that the two sequences are in fact identical.

    A spokesman for Myriad Genetics said that the company has had the whole sequence for some time. “You could say that the British announcement forced our hand. Obviously, as a publicly traded company, Myriad has to keep investors informed.” He confirmed that the two groups were in communication with each other but said that no decisions had yet been reached on what to do.

    BRCA2 is present in about 30% of the 1000 or so families in Britain that are genetically predisposed to develop breast cancer. BRCA1, which was discovered last year by the founders of Myriad Genetics, is present in a further 50% of such families. A third gene may be responsible for the remaining cases.

    Although 95% of breast cancers have not yet been linked to genetic factors, researchers hope that the understanding of genetic traits that lead to inherited breast cancer may help them to find treatments for the more common form of the disease.

    Professor Bruce Ponder of the CRC Human Cancer Genetics Research Group at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, said that, although the exact function of BRCA2 was still unknown, the gene seemed to produce a protein, not yet identified, which checks excessive cell multiplication. Without this protein, tumours were likely to develop.

    Dr Stratton and his colleagues studied more than 40 families with a history of early breast cancers. The evidence suggests that BRCA2 is the responsible gene in the families in which males are also at risk from breast cancer. About 100 men a year die in the UK from the disease. BRCA1 has been linked to increased risk of ovarian cancer.

    The prize for the company that patents BRCA2 will be the right to devise a diagnostic test for carriers. Myriad Genetics has already announced plans to release a BRCA1 test in the first half of this year and intends to create a similar test for BRCA2.

    Several healthy women around the world have already been identified as BRCA1 carriers by blood tests, leaving them to decide whether to have their breasts removed prophylactically. Tests will also be able to determine whether an unborn fetus is a carrier, raising the question of whether to abort a potentially healthy baby.—OWEN DYER, freelance journalist, London

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