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.
With so many developments at the intersection of genomics and the law, there is often a variety of interesting stories that, for one reason or another, don’t find their way into a full-length posting on the Genomics Law Report. In this post we recap several recent key developments and, at bottom, round up all of the recent tweets from @genomicslawyer.
Patent Reform Legislation Passes House. Several months after the U.S. Senate passed patent reform legislation that would make sweeping changes to America’ patent system, including a switch from a first-to-invent to a first-to-file system for awarding patents, the U.S. House of Representatives finally followed suit yesterday, passing a similar piece of legislation by a vote of 304-117. The version passed by the House, while similar to that passed by the Senate, contained a number of last-minute amendments (pdf).
One change of particular relevance to the personalized medicine community was the removal of a proposed safe harbor for second opinion genetic diagnostic testing, which was replaced by a requirement that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) investigate the relationship between genetic diagnostic tests, gene patents and exclusive licenses. The USPTO would be given nine months to complete its investigation and to return to Congress recommendations for ensuring the availability of second opinion genetic diagnostic testing. (The USPTO study on genetic diagnostic testing was not included in the bill passed by the Senate in March.)
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.