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Observations Medicine and the Media

Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy and the question of who owns our genes

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 22 May 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3340
  1. Richard Hurley, deputy magazine editor, BMJ
  1. rhurley{at}

The film star’s announcement of her risk reducing surgery brought breast cancer to the top of the news agenda. But her BRCA1 mutation also drew attention to the issue of control over access to gene sequences, writes Richard Hurley

“Today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action,” the Oscar winning Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie said in the New York Times on 14 May.1 The seemingly extreme action that she took was prophylactic bilateral mastectomy. And the tests for breast cancer that she mentioned are controversial, because they are controlled by a single commercial company that has been allowed to patent the underlying genetic sequences.

Less than three weeks after her breast reconstruction the New York Times ran Jolie’s opinion article to explain why she had made her decision. “To be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could,” the star of the Tomb Raider films wrote.1

In 1000 frank words the 37 year old described wanting to “take control of” the inherited “faulty” gene BRCA1 that she carries, the same mutation that led to ovarian cancer in her grandmother and her mother, who died aged 56. The mastectomy had reduced Jolie’s lifetime risk of breast cancer from 87% to 5%, she …

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