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.
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.”
As we suspected they might, the plaintiffs in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics have filed a petition (pdf) seeking a rehearing of the recent federal Circuit decision. More surprisingly, Myriad has also, though its petition (pdf) is very narrowly focused.
The Plaintiffs’ Petition. Two things are interesting about the plaintiffs’ petition from a procedural standpoint. First, the ACLU lawyers requested rehearing by the three-judge panel that decided the case earlier this summer, not en banc rehearing by all members of the court. (But a majority of the judges of the full court could still decide to rehear the case en banc; they could do so if they found that the case “involves a question of exceptional importance.”) Second, the plaintiffs have asked for rehearing on only two of the issues they lost: that isolated genes are proper subject matter for product patents, and that only one of the named plaintiffs—Dr. Harry Ostrer, formerly of NYU—has standing to bring the case. The plaintiffs did not challenge that portion of the panel’s decision that upheld—unanimously—Myriad’s patents on a method of screening potential cancer therapeutics.
The Federal Circuit’s long-awaited decision (pdf) in Association for Molecular Pathology v. USPTO (the Myriad gene patent litigation) was issued this past Friday. As we were writing, with the economy having slowed to a barely perceptible crawl and a government default looming more likely by the hour, there were plenty of reasons to believe that the sky was falling. But the Myriad decision was not, and is not, one of them.
For the most part, the Federal Circuit’s 2-1 decision returned the law to the state it was in before District Judge Sweet’s opinion turned things upside-down last March. Although full of interesting rhetoric, the court’s three lengthy opinions (a total of 105 pages) are less remarkable for what they decide than for what they invite higher authorities—the Supreme Court and the Congress—to decide down the road.
First, the scorecard. The court’s judgment—that is, the holding, or outcome—was joined by Judges Lourie and Moore. A third member of the panel, Judge Bryson, dissented in part, meaning that he joined only a portion of the judgment (more on that below) and disagreed with another part.
While everyone has been busy speculating about whether the Supreme Court will ultimately take the Myriad case, the justices (at least four of them—see below) sprung a surprise this week by deciding to review the Federal Circuit’s decision in another biomedical patent case, Prometheus v. Mayo.
The patents at issue in Prometheus involve a method of administering a drug (specifically thiopurine drugs used to treat gastrointestinal and other autoimmune diseases), measuring the drug’s level in a patient’s body, and then adjusting the dosage of the drug. The Supreme Court will hear the case this fall and should (see below) issue a ruling by next summer, thus drawing to a close a legal journey that began more than three years ago in a California district court.
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.
As the biotechnology community awaits the Federal Circuit’s decision in the Myriad Genetics patent litigation, attention has focused on the fundamental issue in that case: whether genes and methods for interpreting mutations are patentable subject matter under section 101 of the Patent Act—that is, whether they are the kinds of things that can be patented assuming that all of the other requirements of the Patent Act (pdf) are satisfied.
However, we have argued in several articles (see, e.g., here, here and here) that the real action is more likely to involve all of those “other requirements” as courts explore other ways to limit the patentability of scientific and technology progress without altering the threshold test of patentability under section 101.
A recent Federal Circuit case (Billups-Rothenberg, Inc. v. Associated Regional and University Pathologists, Inc.) decided under the written description requirement of section 112 illustrates this point yet again.
Billups v. ARUP Background. The Billups case involves a disorder called Type I hereditary hemochromatosis, which is characterized by excessive absorption of iron. The critical gene in the absorption process is called HFE, or “High Fe.” In 1994, Billups filed the application that led to a patent on methods for testing for hemochromatosis (U.S. patent number 5,674,681; “’681”). The court’s opinion reproduces this claim as “representative”: