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:
On Tuesday, June 9, 2010, several plaintiffs, including a breast cancer patient and a cancer advocacy group, sued in a Sydney, Australia federal court to invalidate Myriad Genetics’ patents on the breast cancer susceptibility genes BRCA-1 and 2. According to published reports and comments by Australian patent law experts, the suit substantially tracks the much-publicized one filed in New York by the American Civil Liberties Union. In particular, this suit is also a frontal attack on the Myriad patents, seeking a judgment that genes in isolation from the body are products of nature and thus not patentable inventions.
The factual background in Australia seems a bit different. Myriad has granted an exclusive license to perform BRCA gene tests to a Melbourne company called Genetic Technologies Limited, which is a co-defendant in the case. But GTL has been reported to have “gifted” its patent rights to health care institutions, and not to charge royalties. Nonetheless, the plaintiffs’ lawyers have expressed concern about the possibility of GTL exploiting their monopoly as in the U.S., where the tests cost over $3,000. They note that on two earlier occasions GTL sent letters to hospitals telling them to stop testing. A number of Australian sources have also worried aloud about the implications of the patents for medical research.