The Supreme Court today granted a writ of certiorari (meaning they agreed to hear the appeal) in Assoc. for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., et al., the famous case centered on patents covering two human genes: BRCA1 and BRCA2.
Of note is that the Court limited its grant of the appeal to the first of the three questions posed by the petitioners/plaintiffs: “Are human genes patentable?”
Earlier this month, my colleagues John Conley, Robert Cook-Deegan, James Evans and I published a policy article in the European Journal of Human Genetics (EJHG) entitled “The next controversy in genetic testing: clinical data as trade secrets.”
The EJHG article is open access so you can read the entire article at the EJHG website, but here is the abstract:
Last week, personal genetics company 23andMe announced that it had formally delivered the first round of documentation to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in an attempt to receive 510(k) clearance for its consumer product.
23andMe declared itself “first in the [ direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing] industry to announce it is working towards FDA clearance.” That first followed another first for the company earlier in the summer: 23andMe’s first patent, which covers a method of predicting susceptibility to Parkinson’s Disease.
I sat down last week with The Burrill Report to discuss 23andMe’s recent activities and their implications for the future of DTC genetic testing and personalized medicine. You can listen to the complete podcast here.
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.
Prometheus Patents Struck Down, 9-0: Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc. Analysis
In a strong rebuke to the Federal Circuit, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court held (pdf), on March 20, 2012, that Prometheus Laboratories’ claims to methods of administering drugs to treat gastrointestinal autoimmune diseases do not meet the patentable subject matter standard of section 101 of the Patent Act. The representative claim quoted by the Court recites, “A method of optimizing therapeutic efficacy for treatment of an immune-mediated gastrointestinal disorder” comprising two steps: (a) administering one of a class of drugs (thiopurines) and (b) determining the level of a specified metabolite, “wherein” a level below a given threshold “indicates a need to increase the amount of said drug subsequently administered” [to improve efficacy], and a level above the threshold “indicates a need to decrease the amount of said drug subsequently administered” [to avoid toxicity].
History of the Case. Mayo originally bought and used Prometheus test kits that employed the patented method, but it then decided to sell and market its own test, which was similar, but not identical. Prometheus sued for patent infringement. The district court found that Mayo’s test would infringe the Prometheus patents, but it then held the patents invalid as essentially claiming unpatentable laws of nature–in this case, the relationship between the levels of the specified metabolite and the efficacy or toxicity of the relevant drugs.
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 latest news from the field of biotechnology patents is in: the Federal Circuit has handed down its opinion (again) in Prometheus v. Mayo (pdf), the closely watched diagnostic method case. The verdict is the same as before: Prometheus’s patents satisfy the § 101 test for patentable subject matter.
On Monday, we wrote about the Federal Circuit’s first post-Bilski method patent decision: Research Corporation Technology v. Microsoft. In analyzing RCT we argued that it was “a good bet that the Prometheus and Myriad patents, and others like them, will survive § 101.” That bet paid off today in Prometheus and, based on the signals the Federal Circuit sent in that opinion, we think it is increasingly likely to pay off again in Myriad in the form of at least a partial reversal (more on this below).
Applying Bilski means Business as Usual. Way back in June, when the Supreme Court decided Bilski, it not only failed to provide lower courts (including the Federal Circuit) with meaningful guidance for biotechnology method patents, it arguably failed to provide meaningful guidance about anything at all. Despite predictions that Bilski might fundamentally reshape the patent landscape, the Court’s fractured opinions produced little in the way of binding law. The clearest statement from the Court was that the machine-or-transformation test for method patentability, which the Federal Circuit had previously deemed an exclusive test, was in fact only a “useful and important tool.” (Other useful and important tools were not, however, enumerated.)