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.
When we last checked in on the state of patent reform back in March, the Senate had just passed the America Invents Act (S.23) or, as it is more commonly known, the Patent Reform Act of 2011 (pdf) by an overwhelming 95-5 vote.
Following its passage in the Senate, the legislation promptly stalled in the House of Representatives and, several months and numerous committee hearings later, that is where it remains. Fierce lobbying and political maneuvering have thrown multiple key provisions of the reform legislation into doubt. Leading areas of debate include the constitutionality of a proposed change from a “first-to-invent” to a “first-to-file” patent system and a provision that would allow the patent office to retain user fees to fund its own operations.
While it remains unclear whether patent reform will actually occur, the latest round of legislative wrangling has introduced one proposal of particular interest to Genomics Law Report readers. Among 86 pages of proposed amendments (pdf) to H.R.1249 (the House version of the patent reform legislation) offered earlier this week is a provision that, if adopted, would provide an infringement safe harbor for second opinion genetic diagnostic testing.
Permitting Second Opinions in Certain Genetic Diagnostic Testing. Introduced as part of the Manager’s Amendment (pdf) submitted by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the proposal is conceptually simple. It would create a new Section 287(d) under the Patent Act to establish a safe harbor for second opinion genetic diagnostic testing providers, much like the safe harbor that already exists at Section 287(c) for medical practitioners’ performance of medical activities.
Robert Cook-Deegan contributed to this commentary. Dr. Cook-Deegan is Director of the Center for Genome Ethics, Law & Policy at Duke University Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy’s and is currently on leave at the Fondation Brocher in Hermance, Switzerland.
The past few months have brought a number of significant research and commercial developments in the BRCA diagnostic testing market, particularly in Europe. These developments have been met by enigmatic comments from the management of Myriad Genetics, the sole provider of commercial BRCA diagnostic testing in the United States and a defendant in ongoing and closely-scrutinized gene patent litigation. What can these recent developments tell us about Myriad’s future plans in both Europe and the U.S.?
The Next Generation of BRCA Testing. Myriad’s current BRCA diagnostic test, BRACAnalysis (pdf), uses a combination of two traditional technologies—Sanger sequencing and PCR—to identify mutations associated with a significant risk of breast cancer and/or ovarian cancer in the BRCA1 and BRAC2 genes. Although Myriad has dabbled with next-generation sequencing technologies, Myriad has yet to announce any concrete plans to apply any of the increasingly numerous and powerful next-generation sequencing technologies to its BRACAnalysis testing.
Others, however, are moving rapidly in exactly this direction.
[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared as a guest column at Xconomy.]
Last week, New York State assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow introduced the descriptively named “act to amend the insurance law, in relation to requiring coverage for genetic testing in accident and health insurance polices.”
While not accompanied by a press release, or widely covered by media outlets, the bill merits close attention. While the substance of the bill is striking, its greater import lies in what it reveals about the United States’ current framework for personalized medicine regulation and in what the bill portends for the future of personalized medicine innovation and investment in this country.
This past March Judge Robert Sweet handed down an unexpected summary judgment ruling in the Myriad gene patent litigation (see: Pigs Fly: Federal Court Invalidates Myriad’s Patent Claims). Myriad quickly appealed Sweet’s district court decision to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC).
After several months of courtroom quiet, the briefs began rolling in to the CAFC last week. Most, including Myriad’s own appellant brief (pdf), presented the argument we would expect. Myriad and its supporters frame Judge Sweet’s ruling as an erroneous application of settled patent law and policy that, if upheld, “would have far-reaching negative consequences” (pdf) for the continued development of biotechnology.
And then there is the United States government. In an amicus brief filed on Friday (pdf) the Department of Justice (DOJ), on behalf of the United States, dropped a minor bombshell. Contradicting the longstanding policy of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), the government’s brief argues that isolated human genes, without further modification, are a product of nature and do not constitute patent-eligible subject matter under § 101 of the Patent Act.
Over the weekend, Steven L. Salzberg and Mihaela Pertea published a short but significant article in the journal Genome Biology. In “Do-it-yourself genetic testing,” Salzberg and Pertea describe the creation of “a computational screen that tests an individual’s genome for mutations in the BRCA genes, despite the fact that both are currently protected by patents.”
The software-based test can be downloaded from the website of the University of Maryland’s Center for Bioinformatics & Computational Biology, where Salzberg is the director and Pertea is on the faculty. The test purports to test genomic sequence data against a set of known mutations in the BRCA genes. In addition to representing a conceptual alternative for those seeking to evaluate their risk of hereditary breast cancer, the so-called “Salzberg Screen” is also a direct challenge to Myriad Genetics, the FDA and the existing legal, regulatory and policy regimes that continue to struggle to keep pace with the science and technology of genomics and personalized medicine.
Below, we examine how the Salzberg Screen fits—or does not—within the current legal and regulatory landscape, as well as what it signals for the future of do-it-yourself genomics, whole-genome sequencing and the law.
Last week, we wondered what Myriad Genetics had in mind by offering to surrender one of its Australian breast cancer patents as a “gift…to the people of Australia.” This week, in an interview with Turna Ray of the Pharmacogenomics Reporter, Luigi Palombi, director of the Genetic Sequence Right Project at The Australian National University, attempted to shed some light on the issue.
According to Palombi, “Myriad’s objective in surrendering the [‘004 Patent] is to bring the proceedings to a premature end.” Palombi contends that Myriad’s effort to surrender the ‘004 Patent (pdf) is designed to avoid Australian litigation that could set a harmful (even if non-binding) precedent in similar and ongoing U.S. litigation. Myriad, for its part, has so far refused to comment publicly.
A Successful Strategy? As we wrote last week, even if this is what Myriad intends, we are not so sure they will succeed. Offering up the ‘004 Patent for surrender may be a first step in heading off litigation, but without more it is difficult to explain (1) why the plaintiffs would accept the patent surrender, particularly given their stated objective (pdf) to use this litigation as a “test case” for the validity of gene patents or, (2) even if the surrender is successful, why the plaintiffs would refrain from bringing a second “test case” challenging one or more of Myriad’s other patents covering BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 and methods for diagnosing mutations in those genes. (The plaintiffs’ current complaint identifies several of these patents, but challenges the validity of only the ‘004 Patent.)
Several months ago we reported that a group of Australian plaintiffs had initiated litigation challenging the validity of Myriad’s Australian BRCA patents. Much like its U.S. counterpart, the Australian lawsuit represents a frontal attack on the patentability of genes.
Here in the U.S., the gene patent litigation shows no signs of reaching a swift resolution. Over the summer, Myriad appealed March’s widely-discussed district court ruling invalidating several of its key BRCA patents and claims, and the current appeal is unlikely to be the last, regardless of the outcome. In Australia, however, Myriad appears to be taking a different tack: offering to surrender its BRCA patent.
An Offer to Surrender. The development was first reported by the Australian news program Four Corners, which earlier this month ran a program (transcript) on the gene patenting debate and its impact on the availability of genetic testing in Australia. The program concluded with the following:
Late on the afternoon of Monday, March 29, 2010, Judge Robert W. Sweet of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued a jaw-dropping summary judgment ruling (pdf) in Association for Molecular Pathology v. USPTO that invalidates certain of Myriad Genetics’ patents related to the BRCA 1 and 2 breast and ovarian cancer susceptibility genes. In a post written immediately after the release of the opinion, Dan gave a thorough summary of the ruling. Our objective here is to offer a bit more depth on what the ruling means—and what it doesn’t mean. On the one hand, Judge Sweet’s order is radical and astonishing in its sweep. On the other, it will be some time before we have any idea what impact it will ultimately have.
We should first disclose that one of us (John) has a dog in this fight, albeit a small one. In 2003, (along with biologist and patent lawyer Roberte Makowski), John published an article in the Journal of the Patent and Trademark Office Society entitled Back to the Future: Rethinking the Product of Nature Doctrine as a Barrier to Biotechnology Patents (pdf). In that article, Roberte and John laid out an argument for challenging Myriad-style patents on “isolated” genes as claiming products that are only trivially different from the naturally-occurring versions. Judge Sweet cited this article and, in several parts of his opinion, followed the roadmap it created. So, if you oppose the Myriad patents, you’re welcome; if you like them, we’re sorry.
What Summary Judgment Means. As Dan noted, and John first wrote last fall, it is rare for plaintiffs to win on summary judgment. For either side to receive summary judgment, it must show that there are no disputed issues of fact that require a trial to resolve, and that, on the undisputed facts, the law mandates judgment in its favor. This standard is especially hard for a plaintiff to meet, since it bears the burden of proof at trial. At the summary judgment stage, a defendant can usually create an issue of fact and thereby avoid summary judgment just by saying “they have the burden of proof at trial, and a jury might not believe them.” Although this is an unusual case in that the basic facts—most notably Myriad’s patent claims and the fundamental biology and genetics that makes possible those claims—really are not in dispute, a summary judgment ruling for the plaintiffs nonetheless sends a clear message about how strong this particular judge thought their case was—and how weak he thought Myriad’s was.
The Road to Invalidation. The court broke Myriad’s patent claims into two major groups: (i) those claiming isolated DNA sequences and (ii) those claiming methods for comparing or analyzing gene sequences to identify the presence of mutations corresponding to a predisposition to breast or ovarian cancer (p. 2). Both sets of patents were rejected under Section 101 of the Patent Act, which enumerates the permissible categories of patentable subject matter: processes, machines, manufactures, and compositions of matter. As the judge noted, a long history of cases forbids claims on laws of nature, abstract ideas, and natural phenomena, which include products of nature.
Two developments this month have underscored the breadth of dissatisfaction with the current state of biotechnology patenting, even as the court weighs a summary judgment motion in the pending ACLU-sponsored litigation against Myriad Genetics’ breast cancer gene patents. First, on October 2, 2009, the American Medical Association and four other medical organizations interested in genetic medicine filed an amicus brief in Bilski v. Kappos, which is now before the Supreme Court. In a decision in Bilski late last year, the Federal Circuit rejected a patent on a method of hedging in a commodities market because it was a nontransformative process consisting solely of mental steps. The Federal Circuit promulgated what has come to be known as the machine-or-transformation test, which limits patentable subject matter to processes that are either tied to a particular machine or transform the state of matter. The test has been attacked by various biotechnology and pharmaceutical interests because of its perceived limiting effect on patenting diagnostic techniques and tests.