Late on the afternoon of Monday, March 29, 2010, Judge Robert W. Sweet of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued a jaw-dropping summary judgment ruling (pdf) in Association for Molecular Pathology v. USPTO that invalidates certain of Myriad Genetics’ patents related to the BRCA 1 and 2 breast and ovarian cancer susceptibility genes. In a post written immediately after the release of the opinion, Dan gave a thorough summary of the ruling. Our objective here is to offer a bit more depth on what the ruling means—and what it doesn’t mean. On the one hand, Judge Sweet’s order is radical and astonishing in its sweep. On the other, it will be some time before we have any idea what impact it will ultimately have.
We should first disclose that one of us (John) has a dog in this fight, albeit a small one. In 2003, (along with biologist and patent lawyer Roberte Makowski), John published an article in the Journal of the Patent and Trademark Office Society entitled Back to the Future: Rethinking the Product of Nature Doctrine as a Barrier to Biotechnology Patents (pdf). In that article, Roberte and John laid out an argument for challenging Myriad-style patents on “isolated” genes as claiming products that are only trivially different from the naturally-occurring versions. Judge Sweet cited this article and, in several parts of his opinion, followed the roadmap it created. So, if you oppose the Myriad patents, you’re welcome; if you like them, we’re sorry.
What Summary Judgment Means. As Dan noted, and John first wrote last fall, it is rare for plaintiffs to win on summary judgment. For either side to receive summary judgment, it must show that there are no disputed issues of fact that require a trial to resolve, and that, on the undisputed facts, the law mandates judgment in its favor. This standard is especially hard for a plaintiff to meet, since it bears the burden of proof at trial. At the summary judgment stage, a defendant can usually create an issue of fact and thereby avoid summary judgment just by saying “they have the burden of proof at trial, and a jury might not believe them.” Although this is an unusual case in that the basic facts—most notably Myriad’s patent claims and the fundamental biology and genetics that makes possible those claims—really are not in dispute, a summary judgment ruling for the plaintiffs nonetheless sends a clear message about how strong this particular judge thought their case was—and how weak he thought Myriad’s was.
The Road to Invalidation. The court broke Myriad’s patent claims into two major groups: (i) those claiming isolated DNA sequences and (ii) those claiming methods for comparing or analyzing gene sequences to identify the presence of mutations corresponding to a predisposition to breast or ovarian cancer (p. 2). Both sets of patents were rejected under Section 101 of the Patent Act, which enumerates the permissible categories of patentable subject matter: processes, machines, manufactures, and compositions of matter. As the judge noted, a long history of cases forbids claims on laws of nature, abstract ideas, and natural phenomena, which include products of nature.
The highly anticipated decision in Association for Molecular Pathology v. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the frontal attack on Myriad Genetics’ breast cancer gene patents, was handed down today. A copy of the opinion, from Judge Robert Sweet of the Southern District of New York is available here.
The opinion was released late this afternoon and it weighs in at 156 pages, so a more complete analysis will be forthcoming. [Edit 3/30: John Conley and I have published a more detailed review and analysis of the decision here: Pigs Fly: Federal Court Invalidates Myriad’s Patent Claims. For just the highlights, continue reading below.] However, there are a few crucial points that deserve an initial reaction.
1. The Plaintiffs Win. The ruling appears to be a nearly complete victory for the plaintiffs and their supporters, including the ACLU. With respect to Myriad’s issued patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, Judge Sweet’s ruling invalidates both Myriad’s composition of matter claims (its patents on isolated DNA sequences to all or a portion of the breast cancer genes) and its method claims (those patent claims that relate to analyzing or comparing isolated DNA sequences in order to detect mutations in a patient’s BRCA1/2 genes that might cause breast cancer).
The overall tone of the Court’s ruling is best captured by this passage (from page 135):
The identification of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene sequences is unquestionably a valuable scientific achievement for which Myriad deserves recognition, but that is not the same as concluding that it is something for which they are entitled to a patent.
GenomeWeb has a recap of today’s hearing in the Myriad case, including the not-at-all-surprising decision that there was no summary judgment decision issued from the bench. From all accounts the case appears to have been argued along the lines set forward by the parties in their briefs, with no obvious surprises presented by either party during oral argument. As for a decision, according to GenomeWeb, “Judge Sweet did not say today when he expects to make a decision in the case.” Interested observers, including the Genomics Law Report, can expect to wait some time – at least several weeks, if not months – before a decision is handed down. That decision, no matter which way it falls, is likely to produce an appeal to the Second Circuit.
In the meantime, those that simply cannot get enough of the gene patent debate are reminded that the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetics, Health and Society (SACGHS) is convening again this week to finalize its report on biotechnology patent and licensing policy. As previously reported by the GLR, the last SACGHS meeting reviewed and approved several recommendations (pdf) from its Gene Patents and Licensing Task Force, including proposed exemptions from liability for infringing patents when (i) making, using, ordering, or selling tests for patient care purposes or (ii) “in the pursuit of research.”
While the SACGHS approved the recommendations, final review and approval of the Committee’s report on Gene Patents and Licensing Practices and Their Impact on Patient Access to Genetic Tests was tabled until the February meeting. The recommendations and the draft report generated some pushback last fall so, Friday morning, the Committee will be reviewing those additional comments and “coming to closure” (pdf) on the report. The GLR will be listening in. Interested readers can find information about the SACGHS meeting here.
In prior posts we’ve described the ACLU’s lawsuit challenging Myriad Genetic’s patents on BRCA1 and 2, the breast cancer susceptibility genes, and responded to readers’ questions about the effect of those patents on research. In the latest development in the case, the ACLU has filed a motion for summary judgment (the motion was filed on August 26, 2009, and the ACLU’s supporting brief can be found here (pdf).)
Summary judgment, as the term suggests, is a device whereby the judge decides the case before it ever gets to trial. The party asking for summary judgment must persuade the court that the facts are undisputed and the controlling law is unambiguous, so there is no need for a trial. As the standard is sometimes stated, it is clear at the time of the motion that no reasonable jury could find for the other side. Summary judgment, while fairly rare, is most often granted after extensive discovery (sworn deposition testimony and document production), when the parties can make an accurate forecast of what evidence would come out at trial.