Just about everyone interested enough in genomics and the law to read this post will know that the American Civil Liberties Union waged a long and ultimately successful legal campaign to invalidate Myriad Genetics’ patent claims to isolated BRCA genes, mutations of which are linked to breast and ovarian cancer. Now the ACLU has launched a second front, this time attacking Myriad’s post-patent business model of maintaining its vast and unique database of genotype-phenotype associations as a trade secret. GLR reported on that evolving strategy two years ago.
The new ACLU attack has, thus far, received modest attention in the scientific press, and some of what has been reported is inaccurate. In this post I will briefly review what has actually happened and then try to sort out fact from fiction in the reportage. The bottom line is that the federal government has not created new stealth regulations dealing with the disclosure of genomic data to patients. It has, however, used the practice of governance-by-guidance to make significant new policy, which is problematic enough in its own right.
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On April 15, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. This was another significant step—probably the penultimate one—in the long-running Myriad drama. It began with a group of plaintiffs (including researchers, doctors, and breast cancer patients) joining an American Civil Liberties Union-organized lawsuit to invalidate Myriad’s patents on two breast cancer susceptibility genes (BRCA1 and 2) as well as patents on methods of interpreting genetic test results and testing anti-cancer drug efficacy. In a shocking decision, the federal district court in New York threw out all of Myriad’s patents. The Federal Circuit then reversed the district court’s rulings on the gene patents, with the three-judge panel holding unanimously that cDNA is patentable subject matter and holding 2-1 that isolated genomic DNA is patentable as well. The Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling that Myriad’s methods of interpreting mutations are not patentable, but reversed it in reinstating Myriad’s claims to methods of testing drug efficacy.
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The Supreme Court today granted a writ of certiorari (meaning they agreed to hear the appeal) in Assoc. for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., et al., the famous case centered on patents covering two human genes: BRCA1 and BRCA2.
Of note is that the Court limited its grant of the appeal to the first of the three questions posed by the petitioners/plaintiffs: “Are human genes patentable?”
Earlier this month, my colleagues John Conley, Robert Cook-Deegan, James Evans and I published a policy article in the European Journal of Human Genetics (EJHG) entitled “The next controversy in genetic testing: clinical data as trade secrets.”
The EJHG article is open access so you can read the entire article at the EJHG website, but here is the abstract:
Applying Mayo to Myriad: Latest Decision Brings No New News (Plus: Why the Final Myriad Decision Might Not Matter for Personalized Medicine)
The latest chapter in the Myriad gene patent litigation was written yesterday, with the Federal Circuit issuing its much anticipated opinion (pdf) after rehearing the case following the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision earlier this year in Prometheus v. Mayo.
Or perhaps we should say that the latest chapter was “rewritten” as, in a move that surprised approximately nobody, and as we predicted earlier this spring, the Federal Circuit reached precisely the same result in its opinion today as it did last July when it issued its first substantive ruling in the Myriad litigation. Below, we examine how the Federal Circuit applied Mayo to Myriad, what the next step in the Myriad litigation is likely to be (spoiler alert: it’s another appeal) and why we think the final opinion in this case, whenever it arrives and whatever it says, might not matter all that much.
Applying Mayo to Myriad. As mentioned, the only major change since the last time the Federal Circuit ruled in Myriad, and the reason for the re-hearing, was the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this spring in Mayo.
However, Mayo was about method patents and the boundary between a patent-eligible method and a law of nature. It was not about product patents or the product of nature doctrine. Since the Federal Circuit had already invalidated all but one of Myriad’s method patents even before the Supreme Court tightened the criteria for method patents in Mayo, it was hard to see much of substance changing the second time around.
Earlier this week 23andMe, the Silicon Valley-based personal genomics company, was awarded its first patent: US Patent Number 8,187,811, entitled “Polymorphisms associated with Parkinson’s disease”.
23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki announced the issuance of the patent via a post on the company’s blog late Monday evening, attempting to strike a tenuous balance between her company’s oft-championed philosophical devotion to providing individuals with “unfettered access to their genomes” and its desire to commercialize the genomic information so many of those very same individuals have shared, free of charge, with 23andMe. With its new patent, 23andMe also injected itself into the middle of what Wojcicki herself described as the “hot debate” surrounding the patentability of “inventions related to genetics.” Wojcicki’s announcement appeared to catch more than a few of the company’s customers by surprise, sparking concern about the company’s intentions on 23andMe’s blog, Twitter and elsewhere, along with rapid and pointed commentaries from Stuart Hogarth and Madeleine Ball, among others.
Of the various questions asked of and about 23andMe and its new patent, these may be the three most common: Where did this patent come from, and why didn’t I hear about it before? What does 23andMe’s patent cover? How is 23andMe going to use its patent? Let’s take each question in turn.
Big news, right? Not really.
What this means is that the Court Granted cert in Myriad, but for the limited purpose of Vacating the Federal Circuit’s July 2011 decision and Remanding the case to that court for reconsideration in light of the Supreme Court’s decision last week in Prometheus.
Prometheus Patents Struck Down, 9-0: Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc. Analysis
In a strong rebuke to the Federal Circuit, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court held (pdf), on March 20, 2012, that Prometheus Laboratories’ claims to methods of administering drugs to treat gastrointestinal autoimmune diseases do not meet the patentable subject matter standard of section 101 of the Patent Act. The representative claim quoted by the Court recites, “A method of optimizing therapeutic efficacy for treatment of an immune-mediated gastrointestinal disorder” comprising two steps: (a) administering one of a class of drugs (thiopurines) and (b) determining the level of a specified metabolite, “wherein” a level below a given threshold “indicates a need to increase the amount of said drug subsequently administered” [to improve efficacy], and a level above the threshold “indicates a need to decrease the amount of said drug subsequently administered” [to avoid toxicity].
History of the Case. Mayo originally bought and used Prometheus test kits that employed the patented method, but it then decided to sell and market its own test, which was similar, but not identical. Prometheus sued for patent infringement. The district court found that Mayo’s test would infringe the Prometheus patents, but it then held the patents invalid as essentially claiming unpatentable laws of nature–in this case, the relationship between the levels of the specified metabolite and the efficacy or toxicity of the relevant drugs.
The America Invents Act (pdf) (AIA), which was signed into law by President Obama on Friday, September 16, 2011, represents the first major legislative adjustment to the U.S. patent system in decades (see previous coverage). Many changes are included in the 37 sections of this bill, and they will not all take effect at the same time. The most controversial details, found primarily in § 3 of the AIA, continue to be analyzed and debated extensively elsewhere, but there are several elements that may be of particular interest to GLR readers.
First-to-file (§ 3): The most significant change is from a “first-to-invent” system to a “first-to-file” system. Until now, it has been possible for
inventor A to challenge the application of inventor B, who filed an earlier application for the same invention, based on evidence that inventor A had actually invented first.
But First: The Federal Circuit Has Denied the Plaintiff’s Motion for Rehearing in Myriad: This week, the Federal Circuit issued a one-word order—“Denied”—turning down both parties’ requests for rehearing by the three-judge panel that decided that case originally. The parties now have 90 days to file a certiorari petition asking for Supreme Court review.
This news is not surprising considering the Federal Circuit’s most recent treatment of patent-eligible subject matter under § 101 of the Patent Act. On August 31, 2011, another 2-1 divided panel issued its opinion (three very strong opinions, really) in Classen Immunotherapies, Inc. v Biogen Idec (pdf).
The majority finds that two of the three method patents in dispute claim subject matter that is patent-eligible under § 101. However, the court also emphasizes repeatedly that the two patents “may not” meet the other requirements for patentability imposed by §§ 102 (novelty), 103 (nonobviousness), and/or 112 (adequate written description). The thrust of the majority’s message is becoming a familiar mantra–the statutory role of § 101 is to act as a “coarse eligibility filter”–a gateway to the real tests–and not the “final arbiter of patentability.”