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Freeing our genes

It’s National Grandparents Day, so The Legal Genealogist is told, and in honor of the grandparents I knew, I offer this lovely photo of my mother’s parents.

Grandparents2Clay Rex Cottrell, my grandfather, was born in Iowa Park, Texas, on 20 April 1898. His YDNA haplogroup is R-M269, a common European haplogroup that likely began in West Asia. His mitochondrial DNA haplogroup we know from testing the daughter of a daughter of his sister, and it is H, a predominantly European haplogroup.

Opal E. Robertson, my grandmother whose middle name remains a stubborn secret (and matter of debate in the family), was born in Eagle Lake, Texas, on 21 August 1898. Her mitochondrial DNA haplogroup is the one she passed to my mother and then to me, so we know it is H3g, also in that predominantly European haplogroup. Her paternal haplogroup we know from testing the son of her brother, and it is J-M172, which likely originated in the northern portion of the Fertile Crescent.

But there is something more I choose to do today to honor my grandparents.

Because some of their daughters — including my own mother — and some of their granddaughters — including me — have had to battle breast cancer in our lives.

And because one of my cousins is fighting the good fight right now, today.

freegenesI choose to stand with the American Civil Liberties Union, with AARP, and with Breast Cancer Action in opposing the patenting of human genes and gene components that stand in the way of women who need affordable genetic tests for breast cancer.

And so I am joining with Gene by Gene, parent company of Family Tree DNA, to support the Free My Genes movement — at

It doesn’t cost a thing. Just a click of a button to “Like” it on Facebook. It’s nothing more — right now — than a way to say you don’t agree with a patent system that lets anybody lock up our genes and our genetic information in a way that keeps the price of genetic testing artifically high.

The issue is a hot one right now. It has to do with patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, genes that — if present — cause a significantly elevated risk of breast and ovarian cancer, that were issued in the 1990s to Myriad Genetics and its partners, and I’ve written about it before.

• In June of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down those patents. You can read about that here: Our DNA can’t be patented.

• Two companies — Ambry Genetics of Aliso Viejo, California, and Gene by Gene of Houston, Texas — immediately announced much lower-priced tests for those genes. And Myriad promptly sued them, trying to block the testing based on other patents. You can read about that here: Myriad sues genetic testing firms.

• Both of the companies sued are fighting back. Not only did they deny the basic claims in the suit, they’ve countersued, charging that the lawsuit was brought as part of a campaign of “using sharp and overreaching practices to wrongfully monopolize the diagnostic testing of human BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in the United States.” You can read about that here: Testing firms land counterpunch.

Now I’m not naive enough to believe that everyone who opposes patents on genes is doing so out of philanthropic motives. Some of the players are other companies that want to do the tests and make a profit doing so.

But I have nothing against profits. The idea of profits sends me to work every Monday — however reluctantly I might otherwise head out the door. It’s when those profits get obscene, and block competition from the marketplace, that my blood starts to boil.

And my blood boils every time I think about women who can’t afford these tests, whose insurance companies won’t pay for them, who are held hostage by a patent system where the consumer — the cancer patient — just doesn’t matter.

There may be more we can all do to help down the road. For now, educating ourselves and standing together in favor of freeing our genes from the patent system will be a good first step.

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