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.
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.
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.”
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.