Legal & Regulatory

Allergan Assigns Patents to Native American Tribe to Avoid Validity Challenge

What will those lawyers think of next? In one of the most surprising patent strategies ever, the Irish drug company Allergan has assigned six patents on its top-selling dry eye drug Restasis to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe of upstate New York, which is one of the colonial-era Iroquois Nations. The federally recognized tribe is now the owner of the patents, with Allergan having taken back a license to exploit them. The purpose of the transfer is to take advantage of the tribe’s claim to “sovereign immunity,” under which an Indian tribe (the usual legal term), as a sovereign nation, is immune from being sued unless it consents or Congress abrogates its immunity. Allergan’s hope is that would-be generic competitors will be prevented from challenging the validity of the patents either in federal court or through the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office’s inter partes review process.

The idea apparently had its genesis in a decision by the USPTO’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board in a case involving an information technology patent held by the University of Florida. The PTAB held that the university, as an agency of the sovereign state of Florida, was immune to an inter partes challenge to the patent’s validity. Although the PTAB is an administrative body rather than a court, sovereign immunity is usually deemed to extend to “quasi-judicial proceedings,” which accounts for its application in the Florida case.


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Filed under Patent Litigation, Patents & IP, Pending Regulation

More Bad Legal News for Athena Diagnostics: Don’t Mess with Mayo

We have been reporting for more than a year about the case of Williams v. Quest Diagnostics (the parent company of Athena Diagnostics), in which the plaintiff has sued Athena and Quest for causing the death of her son by misclassifying a genetic variant when testing the boy’s DNA. That case is now on  hold in a South Carolina federal court until the state’s Supreme Court resolves the question of whether a genetic testing lab is a licensed healthcare provider under South Carolina law. If it is, then the case will be governed by the state’s malpractice statute of limitations and will probably be dismissed as having been filed too late. If it’s not, then the ordinary negligence statute of limitations will apply and the case will probably be allowed to proceed.

But now Athena faces an adverse ruling from another court—a Massachusetts federal district court—in a patent infringement suit that Athena and two co-plaintiffs brought against Mayo Collaborative Services and the Mayo Clinic: Athena Diagnostics, Inc. v. Mayo Collaborative Services, LLC. In an August 4, 2017 decision, Judge Indira Talwani invalidated Athena’s patent on a method for diagnosing myasthenia gravis (MG), an autoimmune disease that depletes muscle strength. Previous tests detected what are called AChR autoantibodies (antibodies that attack antigens originating in the patient’s own body as if they were foreign substances) to diagnose MG.

But 20% of MG patients don’t have AChR autoantibodies, so the earlier tests yield false negatives. The inventors of the Athena patent discovered that the 20% do have another kind of autoantibody that attacks a neuromuscular protein receptor called MuSK. The patented method calls for making a version of MuSK with a radioactive label (125I-MuSK) and then introducing the 125I-MuSK to a bodily fluid (blood) sample from the patient. If MuSK autoantibodies are detected, the patient is diagnosed with MG.


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Filed under Genomics & Medicine, Patent Litigation, Pending Litigation

A Constitutional Challenge to Alaska’s Genetic Privacy Statute

As part of its defense of a class action lawsuit that began in 2014, a genetic genealogy company (or DNA ancestry company as they are sometimes called) is challenging the constitutionality of the Alaska Genetic Privacy Act, arguing that the statute’s provisions are unconstitutionally vague. The State of Alaska is intervening in the lawsuit to defend the statute.

The Alaska Genetic Privacy Act (AK ST §18.13.010 et seq.) was passed into law in 2004. The state statute imposes a consent requirement that effectively prohibits surreptitious genetic testing and declares that a DNA sample and the results of any genomic analysis are the “exclusive property of the person sampled or analyzed.” More specifically, it requires prior written informed consent for the collection, analysis, retention, or disclosure of DNA samples and test results. The statute makes exceptions to the consent requirement for DNA identification registries like CODIS, law enforcement purposes, paternity testing, newborn screening, and emergency medical services. There are both civil and criminal enforcement mechanisms in the statute. Affected individuals can bring private civil court actions against violators of the statute (AK ST §18.13.020), while another provision criminalizes violations as Class A Misdemeanors (AK ST §18.13.030). The statute (AK ST §18.13.020) provides that a victim is entitled to compensation from the violator in the amount of $5,000 or, in instances in which the violation “resulted in profit or monetary gain to the violator,” $100,000.
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Filed under Genetic Testing/Screening, Genomics & Society, Informed Consent, Pending Litigation, Privacy

LabMD Update

Last September, I reported on the Federal Trade Commission’s decision upholding its enforcement action against the now-defunct clinical laboratory LabMD, Inc. In 2013, the FTC brought an administrative complaint against LabMD, alleging that its lax cybersecurity practices resulted in the exposure of patient data. As I wrote last year, exposure was the key word, as the FTC did not allege any actual data theft or other tangible harm to patients.
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Filed under Legal & Regulatory, Privacy

Keeping an Eye on “Perceived Disability” Litigation in California: Chadam v. Palo Alto Unified School District

We mentioned in January that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s earlier decision to grant a motion to dismiss and is instead allowing the case of Chadam v. Palo Alto Unified School District to move forward. At that time, we explained that this case should remain high on the watch list for genetic rights advocates, as it involves whether a genotype (such as carrier status for an autosomal recessive condition like cystic fibrosis) is a “perceived disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (42 U.S.C.A. §§12131 et seq.) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C.A. § 794).
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Filed under Genomic Policymaking, Genomics & Medicine, Genomics & Society, Pending Litigation, Privacy

Disputes Continue over Foundational Patents for Gene Editing

CRISPR-Cas9 editing of the genome

As we noted early last year, a major dispute over patent rights to CRISPR-Cas systems broke out in January 2016 between Feng Zhang, the Broad Institute, and MIT on one side and Jennifer Doudna and the University of California-Berkeley as well as Emmanuelle Charpentier, Krzysztof Chylinski, and the University of Vienna on the other. CRISPR-Cas systems are powerful tools for genome editing that allow researchers to activate or deactivate target genes. As a reminder of this patent dispute, at issue is whether Zhang was first to invent the application of CRISPR-Cas9 in mammalian and human cells or whether Doudna’s invention of CRISPR-Cas9 was broad enough to encompass application in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells (including mammalian and human cells).

A few noteworthy events have occurred since our last coverage in February 2016. The two sides are engaged in what is called an interference proceeding. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) determined preliminarily that the two sides were claiming patent rights to the same technology and initiated the interference to let them fight over who had priority. Under the pre-2013 version of the Patent Act that applies here, the key question would be who invented first.
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Filed under General Interest, Genomics & Society, Legal & Regulatory, Patent Litigation, Patents & IP

Some Thoughts on the New Common Rule for Human Subjects Research

On January 18, 2017, in one of its last official acts, the outgoing Obama administration issued a final revised version of the Common Rule—the regulation that governs the treatment of human subjects in all federally funded research. This was the culmination of a process that began in 2011 when the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, or ANPRM, that envisioned major changes to the original 1991 Common Rule. Then, on September 8, 2015, HHS and 15 other federal departments and agencies released a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) that proposed specific changes to the Common Rule and opened a 90-day public comment period.
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Filed under Genomics & Medicine, Informed Consent, Patents & IP

Williams v. Athena Motion to Dismiss Hearing—SC Supreme Court May Be Asked to Decide Whether a Diagnostic Laboratory Qualifies as a Healthcare Provider

Foreword by John Conley 

Back on May 31, 2016, Contributing Editor Jennifer Wagner wrote a lengthy report on the newly filed case of Williams v. Quest Diagnostics, et al. As Jen recounted, plaintiff Amy Williams sued Athena Diagnostics and its corporate parent, Quest Diagnostics, alleging that Athena negligently misclassified a genetic variant it identified in testing the DNA of her late son. Ms. Williams claims that the misclassification caused the boy’s doctors to prescribe a potentially dangerous course of treatment that ultimately led to his death. The case was originally filed in a South Carolina state court and was then removed to federal court by the defendants, which they were able to do because the parties are citizens of different states.
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Filed under General Interest, Genetic Testing/Screening, Genomics & Medicine, Legal & Regulatory, Pending Litigation

Update on Chadam v. Palo Alto Unified School District

About a year ago we reported on a case involving allegations of genetic discrimination by a school district in California. According to the allegations, in fall 2012 the Palo Alto Unified School District used genetic information regarding cystic fibrosis in deciding to transfer a student away from his neighborhood school to another school.

Genetic nondiscrimination laws are stronger in California than anywhere else in the United States. CalGINA (S.B. 559), which took effect five years ago, extended genetic nondiscrimination rights beyond the narrow scope of the federal statute known as GINA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, which prohibits genetic discrimination in employment and health insurance contexts. However, this case was interesting to Genomics Law Report largely because the plaintiffs did not rely on CalGINA in their complaint against PAUSD but instead focused on protections against “perceived disability” provided under the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA (42 U.S.C.A. §§12131 et seq.) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C.A. § 794). The school district had convinced a federal district court to dismiss the complaint, but the plaintiffs filed an appeal in January 2016.
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Filed under Genomic Policymaking, Genomics & Medicine, Genomics & Society, Pending Litigation, Privacy

FTC Muscles in on Health Privacy

600px-US-FederalTradeCommission-Seal.svgIn its July 29, 2016 decision in LabMD, Inc., the Federal Trade Commission clearly signaled its intent to get more involved in the regulation of health privacy. Specifically, the case indicates that the agency intends to go well beyond its traditional role of protecting consumers against deception and to begin scrutinizing the nuts and bolts of companies’ health data security practices.
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Filed under Legal & Regulatory, Pending Regulation, Privacy, Privacy