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.”
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.
We reported yesterday on a proposed Patent Act amendment that, if successful, would create a safe harbor for second opinion genetic diagnostic testing. While conceptually simple, the proposed amendment would have left genetic testing developers and providers, patent holders and courts with considerable uncertainty about the safe harbor’s appropriate interpretation and application.
Initially offered by Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) in April, the amendment surfaced again this past week in the Manager’s Amendment to H.R. 1249 (pdf), the House’s attempt at patent reform legislation.
As news of the proposed amendment spread, it generated a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the group largely responsible for coordinating the plaintiffs in the Myriad gene patent litigation, spearheaded the charge. An ACLU-led coalition wrote in opposition to the proposed amendment (pdf), arguing that the proposed second opinion safe harbor “would fail to block all patent holder objections to [second opinion] testing, fails to address the many other limitations on scientific research arising out of the issuance of [gene patents], and risks allowing gene patent holders to argue that Congress implicitly endorses the validity of such patents.” The group was joined in its efforts by the American Medical Association, the Association for Molecular Pathology (the first named plaintiff in Myriad) and others, who collectively lobbied Rep. Wasserman Schultz and her colleagues to avoid creating “unintended harms to patients, medical professionals and genetic researchers.”
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”:
GLR readers will recall that just last summer the Supreme Court passed-up a major opportunity to clarify the status of method or process patents. The patentability of business methods, computer-implemented processes, and diagnostic and other medical methods has long been both controversial and uncertain. In Bilski v. Kappos, the Court confronted a method for hedging against fluctuations in commodities prices. All nine justices thought the method was too abstract to comprise patentable subject matter as defined in section 101 of the Patent Act, but they couldn’t agree on why. The five-member majority held that the machine-or-transformation test (which states that the method must be tied to a particular machine or change something into a different state) propounded by the Federal Circuit in its initial Bilski decision could not be the exclusive test for patentability, but it failed to come up with a test of its own.
The day after issuing its decision in Bilski, the Supreme Court dealt, temporarily, with another closely watched case, Prometheus v. Mayo. In Prometheus, the Federal Circuit used Bilski’s machine-or-transformation test to uphold a method for administering a drug, measuring its level in the body, and then adjusting the dosage. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Prometheus, as well as in a similar biotechnology method case (Classen Immunotherapies v. Biogen IDEC), and then immediately vacated both decisions and remanded the cases to the Federal Circuit for reconsideration in light of Bilski. Neither of those decisions have yet been issued by the Federal Circuit.
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.
Earlier today the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in what some patent observers have termed “the most highly anticipated patent decision of all time“: Bilski v. Kappos (pdf). The Bilski case was widely watched not for the significance of the particular patent at issue but for the far-reaching effect on patent law that the case might have.
Would the Court treat Bilski as a referendum on the patentability of so-called “business methods”? Would it speak more broadly still, using Bilski as an opportunity to clarify the patentability of a range of emerging technologies, particularly in the areas of software and biotechnology? These questions took on added significance for biotechnology companies, investors, researchers and observers earlier this spring when a federal court in New York used Bilski’s machine-or-transformation test to invalidate several of Myriad Genetics’ diagnostic method claims.
There is a two-part question that we are frequently asked these days: “When is Bilski going to be decided and what’s the decision going to be?”
The first part of that question is easy to answer. Bilski will be decided soon. Need something more specific? Bilski will be decided sometime between today and the end of June or beginning of July, when the Supreme Court’s current term ends.
The second part of the question involves predicting the future. We’re happy to take a shot at that, but only after a few caveats. First, these predictions are for entertainment purposes only. Betting on Supreme Court decisions is illegal in most states and several foreign countries, so don’t. Second, pay no attention to alleged inside information about what the Court is going to do or when it’s going to do it. There are no credible Supreme Court leaks—the Court is tighter than Putin’s old KGB (or his new FSB). Third, remember that it takes the votes of four justices for the Court to take a case. So we can presume that at least four justices wanted to say something about Bilski. But we don’t yet know what that might be. With those disclaimers, let’s proceed to the prognostication.