Gene patents have been controversial since they were first granted in the US over two decades ago. The controversy is now reaching a fevered pitch after a surprising US District Court decision which held that human genes are not legitimately patentable and an amicus brief by the Department of Justice largely in support of this contention. How this case will be decided by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court (should it accept the inevitable appeal) is anyone’s guess.
But in spite of what might be suggested by the rhetoric often accompanying this debate, the questions at hand are amenable to logical analysis and the application of evidence. Such an analysis argues strongly that if patents on naturally occurring genes are ultimately ruled out of bounds, the net effect on commerce would be positive.
Last November, just before Thanksgiving, 23andMe, the most popular provider of direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing products, announced a new product and pricing model. The company took its most popular product—a $399 all-in-one genotyping service—and split it into two separate products, an “Ancestry Edition” and a “Health Edition.” It also raised prices, with the complete package jumping from $399 to $499.
This November, just before Thanskgiving, 23andMe announced it was undoing most of last November’s changes, eliminating the separate ancestry and health editions and offering, once again, a single product. Not reversed: the price increase.
A Rationale for Raising Prices. The combined product remains priced at $499, although it now requires a 1 year subscription to 23andMe’s (previously optional) Personal Genome Service (PGS). The PGS, which debuted in September, provides customers with access to regular scientific updates and product features for $5 per month. The changes make the effective list price for 23andMe’s service $559, although the company has run frequent $99 sales, and there are rumors that another one is imminent.
Last fall we reported on the passage of the Human Genetic Examination Act by the German Bundestag. We characterized the Gendiagnostikgesetz (GenDG), as the act is known in Germany, as “a clear example of what is known as ‘genetic exceptionalism’—the belief that genetic information is qualitatively different from other forms of personal or medical information—staking out a position near the paternalistic end of genetic regulation.”
The GenDG (pdf) took effect early this year and, until recently, little news of its impact on German law, policy or business has made its way across the Atlantic. Last week, however, several prestigious German scientific academies released a report entitled “Predictive Genetic Diagnostics as an Instrument of Disease Prevention.” The “Academy Group,” as the report’s authors refer to themselves, consists of the Leopoldina, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the German Academy of Science and Engineering Acatech. Astoundingly, according to a recent editorial in the journal Nature, the report is the first from the group in its 350 year existence.
With so many developments at the intersection of genomics and the law, there are 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 addition to the regular @genomicslawyer Twitter recap, this week I was also tweeting from the 6th annual Partners Healthcare conference on Personalized Medicine. So this version of the Twitter Roundup comes in two sections: tweets from the Partners conference, as well as a brief recap, followed by the regular Twitter roundup.
Part I: Personalized Medicine Conference. Much like last year’s conference, which I also attended and tweeted, the dominant theme voiced by both speakers and attendees was the need to overhaul the personalized medicine reimbursement model. From increasing up-front R&D costs to slowing patient and participant uptake, both of which depress investor interest, almost everybody agreed that reimbursement for personalized medicine products – and advanced diagnostics in particular – needs work.
As we wrote yesterday, last week the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued definitive rules and regulations (pdf) with respect to Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA). In our previous post we offered a brief overview of the new regulations, as well as some preliminary suggestions for employers just now coming to grips with GINA.
We also promised to take a closer look in today’s post at several substantive features of the EEOC’s new regulations.
Defining the Terms. The EEOC, the government agency generally responsible for enforcing federal employment nondiscrimination laws, was the logical choice to promulgate regulations under GINA’s Title II, which governs the use of genetic information by employers and similar entities. But not all of GINA’s statutory provisions were within the EEOC’s area of expertise.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued its final rules and regulations implementing the employment provisions of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA). Signed into law in 2008, GINA took effect in two stages in 2009, with Title I (which applies to health insurers and plans) effective in May and Title II (which applies to employers) effective in November.
When GINA was passed, Congress instructed the EEOC to issue final rules and regulations no later than May of 2009 describing how the agency intends to interpret and enforce the legislation. Although the EEOC missed that deadline by a full 18 months, the Commission did issue definitive rules and regulations (pdf) for Title II of GINA last week. (In its defense, the departments responsible for the Title I – Labor, Health and Human Services and the Treasury – have yet to issue final regulations of their own.) The regulations take effect January 10, 2011.
Reintroducing GINA. Last November, we reported that Title II of GINA had joined ranks with the other federal antidiscrimination laws (the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), to name a few), to provide federal protection against workplace discrimination, in this case on the basis of genetic information. Title II of GINA prohibits the use of genetic information in the employment context, and also restricts employers from acquiring or disclosing genetic information.
It is shaping up to be an eventful fourth quarter for genomic sequencing companies. Investors welcomed sequencing newcomer Pacific Biosciences (PacBio) to the public stage with a strong initial public offering (IPO). According to The Wall Street Journal, the company managed “the first U.S. life-sciences [IPO] this year to price well and trade higher” (although the stock has since traded down somewhat). Up next: another next-gen sequencing IPO with Complete Genomics (CGI) expected to follow PacBio into the public market as early as tomorrow.1
The past few weeks have also seen strong third quarter earnings reports from market leaders Illumina (earnings recap) and Life Technologies (earnings recap), with both companies touting double-digit growth in their next-generation sequencing businesses. Illumina and Life Technologies (Life) are also hard at work on their next generation of products which are intended to compete more directly with the offerings from PacBio and CGI (Oxford Nanopore for Illumina, Ion Torrent and Starlight for Life). Meanwhile, China’s own sequencing entrant, BGI, continues to buy up sequencers (first from Illumina, more recently from Life), and what will soon become the world’s largest provider of genomic sequencing has its own ambitious plans.
With so many developments at the intersection of genomics and the law, there are 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. Here is a recap of what I was Tweeting recently @genomicslawyer:
- RT @biotechbythebay @EdwardWinstead: In today’s NIH talk Lee Hood used wndrfl qt: “You have to go through complexity to get to simplicity.”
- I’m late on this but @MishaAngrist’s short review of Never Let Me Go (http://bit.ly/8Yt3at) is excellent. Go read and see.
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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.