On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that companies may not issue patents on naturally occurring human genes. This decision has the potential to deeply affect medical and biotechnology companies. Dr. Elizabeth Lynn Suh is medical director with Montana Breast Health at Community Medical Center.

Dr. Suh said on Friday, June 14, that Myriad, the company that has held patents to the BRCA 1 and 2 (for BReast CAncer) genetic testing, has been fair in providing access to at-risk patients for genetic testing, despite the high cost, due to the medical patents.

"Over the past few years, Myriad has been the company that controls the BRCA 1 testing for genetic mutations for breast cancer and ovarian cancer," Dr. Suh said. "Having that genetic mutation can mean up to an 86 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer for those who carry that gene, and up to 46% risk of ovarian cancer."

The arguments over allowing a company like Myriad to hold patents on naturally occurring genetic materials was due to cost and accessibility.

"There's always been talk that the test is expensive and so its not accessible to those with lower incomes, and there are questions as to whether insurance will pay for the testing" Dr. Suh said. "However, the company has done a really good job of getting the patients that meet the criteria for testing that have a pretty good chance for testing positive, of getting those tests done."

Dr. Suh is ambivalent about the decision by the supreme court, because she is concerned that the quality of the testing currently being done might be compromised by other lower-cost companies becoming involved.

"There's talk that its going to be under $1,000 as opposed to being over $3,000," Dr. Suh said. "The one thing that Myriad did do, was they had very good quality-control measures, asking questions like 'are these the patients that should really be getting the testing?' But, one of the drawbacks is if the test ts readily available, you wonder, are these other companies going to do as good a job with quality assurance, and will the patients get counseled appropriately?"

Dr. Suh said the BRCA 1 and 2 gene mutations are very rare, as was recently publicized by the announcement that actress Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy upon the results that she had tested positive for the BRCA 1 gene.

"Less than 1 percent of the people with breast cancer actually carry that BRCA 1 gene, so they're a small percentage," Dr. Suh said. "Now, after all the press reports about Angelina Jolie, everyone's going to push to get these test done, because they want to know. But, the question is, how will they use that information?"

Dr. Suh said Montana Breast Health at Community Medical Center follows patients very carefully once they've been tested.

"When we refer patients out to get those BRCA tests, we follow them very closely, we counsel them carefully, and I'm a little worried about having the test readily available," Dr. Suh said. "The patients get the test, get a false sense of not being at risk for cancer, not realizing that there's still an inherent risk, simply by being female."

Dr. Suh encouraged anyone who is concerned about breast cancer to contact Montana Breast Health at Community Medical Center at 327-3941.

Dr. Elizabeth Suh at Montana Breast Health