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Angelina Jolie's courageous act will save women's lives

She has also shone a light on a Supreme Court battle over whether a company has the right to patent a human gene.

May 21, 2013|By Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times
  • Angelina Jolie
Angelina Jolie (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Four days after her April 27 breast reconstruction, the third and final surgery aimed at sparing her an early death from breast cancer, Angelina Jolie was in good spirits at home.

Upon paying a house call, her surgeon, Dr. Kristi Funk of the Pink Lotus Breast Center in Beverly Hills, found two walls of the actress' home covered with "freshly assembled story boards" for her next directorial project.

"All the while she spoke," the doctor later wrote on her blog, "six drains dangled from her chest, three on each side, fastened to an elastic belt around her waist." Despite that, Funk wrote, Jolie's energy was "bountiful."

Good for Jolie, the mother of six young children. Though there is no such thing as 100% prevention, she has dramatically reduced her chance of getting breast cancer. Later, she has hinted, she may have surgery to remove her ovaries.

Given her family medical history, it's understandable. She watched her mother struggle with breast cancer, then die of ovarian cancer at 56. Her maternal grandmother also had ovarian cancer.

With her star power and ability to stoke an insatiable public interest, Jolie, 37, has the potential to help save lives by raising awareness. With the stroke of a pen, she makes genetic testing seem less fearsome and helps destigmatize mastectomy.

"On a personal note," she wrote in a New York Times essay revealing her surgeries last week, "I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity."

Pink Lotus Breast Center co-founder and Executive Chairman Andy Funk, whose wife is Jolie's surgeon, said in an email Monday that Pink Lotus and Jolie are collaborating on a public relations campaign. Her essay was the opening salvo.

Funk said he could not yet answer questions about whether Jolie has a financial relationship of any sort with the center, which she singled out in her New York Times piece. But he hinted that something is afoot.

Perhaps Jolie will follow the footsteps of singer Sheryl Crow, who had breast cancer surgery in 2006, then helped launch the Sheryl Crow Imaging Center at Pink Lotus. The center features "the latest advancements in digital screening and diagnostic imaging technologies."

Maybe Jolie will start a fund for low-income or uninsured women who do not have access to the expensive BRCA testing, which can cost $3,000. Or maybe she will bring her campaign against breast cancer to the developing world. In Africa, late breast cancer detection leads to a disproportionate number of deaths, particularly among young women.

As Jolie wrote in the New York Times, "Breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people each year … mainly in low- and middle-income countries. It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can get access to gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live."

Or maybe she is trying to subtly influence the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to rule later this year on a case challenging a Utah company's patent of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.

The company, Myriad Genetics, developed the "BRCAnalysis" test that determines whether women have the dangerous gene mutation. No other company may develop such a test as long as Myriad owns the patent on the genes.

No wonder the test costs so much.

According to the Public Patent Foundation , which, along with the ACLU, is challenging the Myriad patents, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office has granted "thousands of patents on human genes — in fact, about 20% of our genes are patented."

That means, according to the foundation, that a patent holder such as Myriad can prevent anyone else from studying, testing "or even looking at" a gene. "As a result, scientific research and genetic testing has been delayed, limited or even shut down due to concern about gene patents."

Myriad rebuts that argument on its website. The company says that about 95% of all "appropriate patients" in the U.S. have access to this kind of testing through private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid or Myriad's own financial assistance program, which has provided free testing to 5,000 patients in the last three years.

Still, the control rests with Myriad.

When the case was argued last month before the U.S. Supreme Court, justices seemed leery of allowing a company to patent a "product of nature" i.e. a gene.

Justice Elena Kagan wondered whether patenting a gene wasn't akin to trying to patent some other part of the human body, say, the liver.

But justices are also well aware that venture capitalists considering funding new genetic research may be unwilling to invest if they have no guarantee of exclusivity.

The court is expected to decide the landmark case in June.

In the meantime, as evidenced by comments on the Pink Lotus Breast Center blog, Jolie's stock is way up among women who are engaged in various fights against breast cancer. To many she has become a hero.

Not coincidentally, on the day Jolie's essay ran, the stock of Myriad Genetics jumped as well. Not that it matters, but she's probably a hero there too.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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