The Cost of Breast Cancer Prevention

Jacob Pharoah If you are a celebrity news junkie like myself, I have no doubt that you’ve heard about the preventative double mastectomy that Angelina Jolie underwent this year. In a tell-all New York Times article, Angelina gave the public an unreserved account of her experience. Like her mother, Jolie carries the BRCA1 gene, which drastically increases her chances of developing breast and ovarian cancer. In being so open and matter-of-fact about the issue, she has opened the door to further dialogue on a topic that is almost taboo in our society, and perhaps instigated a new era of breast cancer awareness. “Cancer” continues to be a swear word, and the knock-on-effect is that many people can be cautious to address it. Although all of this seems significant enough in itself, there is another facet of the story that has been rendered slightly overlooked in the wake of Angelina’s media frenzy. Myriad Genetics is a company currently claiming that the BRCA1 gene is its intellectual property, which blocks other organizations from administering testing for the gene or even researching it further. Myriad Genetics has made $126 million from breast cancer testing in this fiscal quarter alone, and at almost $4,000 a pop, these tests are far from a meager sum for most women in America. The obscene cost acts as a barrier for a sometimes life-saving early diagnosis, and it seems apparent that this is an unfortunate case of a company favoring profit over morality. Breast Cancer Action is the organization bravely taking the corporation to the Supreme Court, questioning the validity of patenting a human gene and hoping to make the testing for this gene a more realistic possibility for the American public. But how can a corporation own a human gene? That’s the basis of the Supreme Court case, and it poses a major ethical dilemma. How do we draw the line between protecting intellectual property and allowing an extortionist program to continue that puts lives at risks? With many other kinds of genetic testing usually costing under $100, it seems evident that there is little necessity behind Myriad’s extravagant fee. Of the 230,000 new cases of breast cancer every year, it is estimated that women with BRCA1 make up anywhere from 5% to 10% of the group. It makes me question the morality of a company that is willing to sustain the size of this number simply in the name of profit. It seems I’m far from alone in my opinion. Amid the escalating outrage over this subject, increasing numbers are taking to the streets in protest, donning slogans like, “Your corporate greed is killing my friends.” In the coming weeks we will see whether the Supreme Court follows this trend, and revokes Myriad’s “ownership” of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. As I write this, I can’t help but look back to the 2012 Presidential elections, which bolstered women’s issues to the forefront of public discussion. The possibility of a defunding of Planned Parenthood and the care that it provided threw the U.S. into a fierce debate, which inevitably focused on how much power the government should have over our bodies. To me, this touches upon a similar theme (although this we’re talking corporations and not politicians), and warrants the same level of attention. As an Englishman, the healthcare system in the United States still feels alien to me sometimes. Whenever the topic of affordable healthcare hits me, I, weirdly enough, flash back to one of my favorite childhood television shows: Ugly Betty. The episode that continually comes to mind follows Betty’s struggle to get her father’s heart medication because of a problem with her insurance. Betty has no idea how she will find the money to purchase his medication, and after hours calling healthcare companies in the hope that there is something that they can do, it becomes clear that she is truly alone in her plight. For me, human life has to come before profit and that is what the basis of this case is. At the end of the day, the Myriad Genetics case begs an ethical question, and one that seems very loaded after Obamacare and the healthcare debates that have frequented this year.]]>