Category Archives: Science

Q&A with Dr. Alan Kristal about omega-3 fatty acids and prostate cancer risk

Many of you have asked about the recent study Hutch study that links consumption of omega-3 fatty acids with prostate cancer. Here I share a really nice post from the Petri Dish blog by the Hutch that answers many questions:

http://questmagazine.wordpress.com/2013/07/18/qa-with-dr-alan-kristal-about-omega-3-fatty-acids-and-prostate-cancer-risk/

Why should you care about science?

And why should scientists care if the general public cares about science?

Last week I wrote about the importance of science community engagement in public education and the role of science journalism. The implicit assumption of the post is that it is important for the general public to be engaged in science. In case you don’t share this assumption, let me outline a few reasons why you should.

  • Scientific developments affect us all, whether it’s the development of new cancer therapies, understanding what causes drug resistance in ‘super bug’ bacteria, or evaluating the safety of genetically modified foods (we all consume them).
  • Having a better understanding of how seemingly small contributions in very specialized areas by a large number of scientists (which includes some disagreements), over time and across the world , collectively help fields move forward will help the public understand why science is slow.
  • A general public that understands how discoveries in a fruit flies or yeast can help human health and innovation in general will hopefully generate more support for research. Public support for research may translate to an increase in funding.
  • Beyond financial support, an informed general public can better judge science news without the sway of politics (think global warming).

As you can see, the benefits are many for both scientists and non-scientists alike!

Gene patents? No thank you!

The US Supreme Court ruled this morning that human genes cannot be patented. My research and clinical colleagues are overjoyed! The suit was brought forward by the Association for Molecular Pathology against Myriad Genetics. The defendant, Myriad Genetics, has held patents for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes since the mid 1990’s. Women with mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 are at high risk for developing breast and some other  kinds of cancers. Men with mutations in BRCA2 are also at a high risk for breast cancer.

Myriad Genetics has been the only company that clinicians could refer patients for identification of BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. Myriad Genetics has not licensed other companies to do the testing. It costs around $3000 to get the test done and most insurance companies cover the cost for patients with family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer. If you can shell out the $3000, Myriad Genetics conveniently offers direct-to-consumer testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2—allowing you to bypass your physician altogether!

The monopoly held by Myriad Genetics will now come to an end. It was wrong to begin with!

Why should a company be able to patent genetic information that exists in all of us? Patenting the technology or method used for discovery of the genetic material or gene sequence is legitimate but not the sequence itself. It seems absurd to me that a company can file for a patent for a naturally occurring phenomenon. Our bodies have been making use of that genetic information for a lot longer than Myriad Genetics has been in existence—sans patent.

The Supreme Court ruling is a win for patients (consumers). With the patent ruled unconstitutional, other companies can develop methods or use existing, publicly available, technologies, to sequence BRCA1 and BRCA2, in addition to other cancer susceptibility genes. With additional competition, we can hope for a test that costs less than $3000. This is a reasonable expectation since scientists are currently racing to sequence the entire human genome (>20,000 genes and other non-genic regions) for $1000. We can also hope that these companies will encourage public sharing of information about different mutations that may us better understand a class of mutations called variants of unknown significance, discussed elsewhere. Myriad Genetics stopped sharing this kind of information a few years ago because it “doesn’t make a lot of business sense,” according to CEO Peter Meldrum1.

What about business and the bottom line? Myriad Genetics will continue to profit from BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing as they hold the experience, expertise and a large database. Perhaps the profit margin may go down as competitors enter the market. There is now space in the market for others to get a piece of the commercial genetic testing pie.

Overall, this is a huge victory–for patients, clinicians and scientists.

1 http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-28/myriad-stymies-cancer-answers-by-impeding-data-sharing.html

Brainstorm for breast cancer

As the recipient of the Thomsen Family Breast Cancer Research Fellowship, I was invited to speak about my work on chemotherapy resistance in breast cancer at a gathering of the Breast Cancer Research Institute. In the audience were breast cancer clinicians (surgeons, oncologists, radiologists) and research scientists (basic scientists, translational biologists, epidemiologists) from the Fred Hutch/Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and the University of Washington.

This was a rare opportunity for both clinicians and basic science researchers to share data and have the opportunity to collectively help move the field forward. Following my presentation and presentations by other award recipients, there was a round-table discussion to do exactly that. We were provided with a list of directives to guide how breast cancer research should be funded at the local level and, as a table, asked to provide feedback on those directives.

My table consisted of one other basic scientist and three radiologists who develop and modify MRI techniques for early and better detection of breast tumors. As we discussed the merits of the listed directives, one of the radiologists shared that he thought large data-gathering consortia (which collect many different kinds of data from a large number of patients) may be a waste of resources as those efforts are not driven by a specific hypothesis (or idea) to be tested. The basic scientist and I responded that for us those large data-sets are invaluable! We can test hypotheses that we develop on non-clinical, lab-based experiments on patient data available in those data sets. A great discussion followed.

This anecdote demonstrates the importance of having such round-table discussions among researchers and clinicians. We can best evaluate effective strategies and the most appropriate use of resources working together. It was a rare opportunity to brainstorm with experts from different fields. All of our approaches and contributions may be different but we all share the same goal–improve survival from breast cancer by developing strategies to better prevent, detect, and treat this terrible disease.