Brea$t Cancer Gene

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We are being led to believe that the answer to women's worries about breast cancer is the so-called "breast cancer gene".

It is true that certain genes have been found to show an increased chance for breast cancer in women with a family history of this disease. Having "breast cancer genes" does not mean a woman will get cancer. They indicate a higher than average risk. Some women without "breast cancer genes" get breast cancer. Some women with the genes remain cancer free. There are many factors besides genes that influence the likelihood of getting cancer. So why is the American-based company Myriad Genetics trying to develop a screening test to find the so-called "breast cancer gene" BRCA-1 in healthy women?

Genetic tests to find "breast cancer genes" cannot prevent cancer or reliably predict who will develop cancer. Yet, Myriad Genetics is applying for a patent on the BRCA-1 gene and is developing a genetic screening test.

Even though genetic tests would be relevant only for the small percentage of breast cancers where there is a clear pattern of family history, population-wide screening is being promoted. But, what will happen if you test positive for the "breast cancer gene"? There are no proven preventative treatments for women without the disease. Will you have your breasts removed or undergo other treatments "just in case"?

Women who are labelled "genetically defective" risk losing their health insurance or jobs. Women in the United States have been pressured to abort fetuses diagnosed as "defective" by companies who threaten the loss of health insurance. So far, Canada has resisted the patent of human genes. However, pressure is growing for Canada and other countries to adopt American patenting standards.

The focus on genes as causing cancer shifts attention and energy from environmental clean-up measures that could reduce the incidence of breast cancer. It also suggests that the problem and, ultimately the solution, lies with the individual woman rather than through social and systemic efforts.

Tests for BRCA-1 and similar genes benefit the companies that market them. They stand to make huge profits by exploiting women's fear of cancer. In response, many women in Canada and the United States are calling for a stop to gene patenting and the commercialization that goes with it.

On June 10, 1996, a letter was sent to Health Minister David Dingwall and Industry and Science Minister John Manley outlining women's concerns with the patenting of the "breast cancer gene" or any other human parts, products or processes, and with the proliferation of genetic screening tests. The letter called for the opposition of any attempt to patent human genetic material by scientists, corporations or other entities. It also voiced opposition to the export of American patenting standards to the rest of the world through international intellectual property rights agreements.The letter was signed by:

Fiona Miller, Feminist Alliance on New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies, Toronto; Joan Grant-Cummings, President, National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Toronto; Maude Barlow, the Council of Canadians, Ottawa; Michelle Swenarchuck and Ken Traynor, Canadian Environmental Law Association, Toronto; Brewster Kneen, British Columbia Biotechnology Circle, Mission; Judy Morrison, Vancouver Women's New Reproductive Technologies Coalition, Burnaby; Abby Lippman, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatics, McGill University, Montreal; Susan Sherwin, Department of Philosophy, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Patricia Lee, Department of Anthopology, University of British Columbia. and others.

To get an information sheet on the "breast cancer gene", a copy of the letter or to become involved contact:

Fiona Miller
Feminist Alliance on the New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies
150 Montgomery Ave.,Toronto, Ontario, M4R 1E2
Internet address: FMILLER@YORKU.CA