By Dennis Crouch
For many, the most interesting aspect of this case comes at the end in Judge Dyk’s dissent. Dyk makes the case that genes should not be patentable.
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Intervet Inc. v. Merial Limited (Fed. Cir. 2010)
In 2006, Intervet filed a complaint against Merial — asking the DC District Court for a declaratory judgment that Intervet’s Porcine Circovirus vaccine (PCV-2) did not infringe Merial’s gene patent. Merial’s patent claims both the isolated DNA molecule of PCV-2 and a vector that contains the DNA. The application includes a listing of several different sequences that all fall within the PCV-2 category.
Although Intervet also uses a PCV-2 vector. The DJ plaintiff argues that its DNA molecule is different from the one described and deposited by Merial. The district court agreed — holding that the Intervet product was only 99.7% homologous to the closest deposited sequence and therefore outside of the literal claim scope. The district court also applied prosecution history estoppel to rejected Merial’s claims of infringement under the doctrine of equivalents (DOE). On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed on both claim construction and DOE.
Genus Not Limited to Examples: The asserted claim includes a limitation of a “PCV-2” DNA molecule. The District Court limited that term to cover only the DNA sequences that were deposited with the PTO. On appeal, the Federal Circuit rejected that construction as overly limiting. Rather, the appellate panel held that the deposited sequences serve as a representative sample of PCV-2 DNA sequences. “Sequences are representative of the scope of broader genus claims if they indicate that the patentee has invented species sufficient to constitute the genera. Here, the deposited strains are representative species of the larger ‘type II’ genus, where the genus is identified and claimed as the invention.” In describing its invention, the specification noted that the PCV-2 desposited sequences had a 96% homology and that the invention did not cover PCV-1 sequences that at most shared 76% homology with the deposited sequences. Taking those quantitative limits from the specification, the Federal Circuit ruled that the claimed PCV-2 molecule should be construed as being “about 96% or more homologous with the … sequences disclosed in the present specification, and about 76% or less homologous with the [disclosed PCV-1] sequence.”
What is Equivalents are Surrendered by a Narrowing Amendment: An accused infringer may still be liable even though its product does not literally infringe every element of an asserted patent claim. Under the doctrine of equivalents (DOE), a patentee may be able to provie infringement by showing that one or more elements of the accused product are equivalent to elements in the claim. Under the limiting doctrine of prosecution history estoppel (PHE), a patentee will ordinarly be estopped from claiming DOE over a claim element that was narrowed during prosecution. (A narrowing amendment made for purposes related to patentability creates a rebuttable presumption that estoppel applies.)
Here, one of Merial’s original claims was directed to a markush group of open reading frames (ORFs) that had been described in the specification as “ORFs 1–13.” In an initial rejection, the examiner suggested that the limitation could refer to ORFs of non-PCV-2 molecules. Although the patentee argued that the claim was clear, it still added the limitation that the claimed ORFs were PCV-2 ORFs. The Federal Circuit held that this was a narrowing amendment substantially related to patentability. That narrowing amendment therefore created a presumption that the patentee had surrendered all equivalents that relate to non-PCV-2 ORFs. The district court erred, however, in holding that this narrowing amendment would estopp the the patentee from asserting that the claims cover a non-claimed PCV-2 ORF as an equivalent. “Such a draconian preclusion would be beyond a fair interpretation of what was surrendered. The rationale for the amendment was to narrow the claimed universe of ORFs down to those of PCV-2, and bore only a tangential relation to the question of which DNA sequences are and are not properly characterized as PCV-2.”
Dissenting-in-part, Judge Dyk discussed his argument that the claims directed toward the isolated form of a naturally occurring gene are likely unpatentable under 35 U.S.C. § 101.
[T]he isolated DNA claim raises “substantial issues of patentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. . . . Neither the Supreme Court nor this court has directly decided the issue of the patentability of isolated DNA molecules. Although we have upheld the validity of several gene patents, none of our cases directly addresses the question of whether such patents encompass patentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. . . .
I think that such patents do in fact raise serious questions of patentable subject matter. The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bilski v. Kappos has reaffirmed that “laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas” are not patentable. No. 08-964, slip op. at 5 (U.S. June 28, 2010) (quoting Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 309 (1980)); Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U.S. 127, 130 (1948). Just as the patentability of abstract ideas would preempt others from using ideas that are in the public domain, see Bilski, slip op. at 13, so too would allowing the patenting of naturally occurring substances preempt the use by others of substances that should be freely available to the public. Thus, “a new mineral discovered in the earth or a new plant found in the wild is not patentable subject matter. Likewise, Einstein could not patent his celebrated law that E=mc2; nor could Newton have patented the law of gravity.” Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 309. These aspects are properly conceptualized as representing a public domain, “free toall men and reserved exclusively to none.” Id. (quoting Funk Bros., 333 U.S. at 130) (quotation mark omitted).
In Funk Brothers, the Court considered the patentability of a mixture of several naturally-occurring species of bacteria. 333 U.S. at 128-31. The patented product was a mixture of bacteria used in agricultural processes, enabling plants to draw nitrogen from the air and convert it for usage. The inventor discovered that certain strains of the bacteria were effective in combination with one another, and contrary to existing assump-tions, did not exert mutually inhibitive effects on each other. The Court held that the invention was not pat-entable subject matter. Id. at 131. The inventor “did not create a state of inhibition or of non-inhibition in the bacteria. Their qualities are the work of nature. Those qualities are of course not patentable.” Id. at 130. The Court furthermore noted:
The qualities of these bacteria, like the heat of the sun, electricity, or the qualities of metals, are part of the storehouse of knowledge of all men. They are manifestations of laws of nature, free to all men and reserved exclusively to none. He who discovers a hitherto unknown phenomenon of na-ture has no claim to a monopoly of it which the law recognizes. If there is to be invention from such a discovery, it must come from the applica-tion of the law of nature to a new and useful end.
In Chakrabarty, the Court considered whether a human-made microorganism is patentable subject matter under section 101. 447 U.S. at 305. The microorganism in question was a bacterium that had been genetically engineered to break down crude oil. In concluding that the man-made bacteria was patentable, the Court observed that the claim “is not to a hitherto unknown natural phenomenon, but to a nonnaturally occurring manufacture or composition of matter.” Id. at 309. The Court went on to distinguish Funk Brothers on the ground that the Chakrabarty bacterium possessed “markedly different characteristics from any found in nature. . . . His discovery is not nature’s handiwork, but his own; accordingly it is patentable subject matter under § 101.” Id. at 310 (em-phasis added).
Thus, it appears that in order for a product of nature to satisfy section 101, it must be qualitatively different from the product occurring in nature, with “markedly different characteristics from any found in nature.” It is far from clear that an “isolated” DNA sequence is qualita-tively different from the product occurring in nature such that it would pass the test laid out in Funk Brothers and Chakrabarty. The mere fact that such a DNA molecule does not occur in isolated form in nature does not, by itself, answer the question. It would be difficult to argue, for instance, that one could patent the leaves of a plant merely because the leaves do not occur in nature in their isolated form.