By Professor Paul M. Janicke, University of Houston Law Center
The Myriad case from the Southern District of New York, involving patent eligibility of DNA isolates derived from naturally occurring DNA, drew a great deal of attention. The court basically held such isolates ineligible for patent coverage as being too similar to the natural substances, and hence barred by the product-of-nature case law. In the district court Myriad drew twenty-three amici briefs and a great deal of press attention. It is now on appeal at the Federal Circuit, where the first brief is due to be filed October 22. However, in a little-noticed partial dissenting opinion in another case, Circuit Judge Timothy Dyk has given a preview of his likely views on this important question.
The appellate case was Intervet Inc. v. Merial Ltd., decided by a Federal Circuit panel on August 4. The case involved DNA sequences encoding viruses harmful to pigs. According to the patent involved, knowledge of such sequences facilitates detection methods and production of vaccines against the harmful viruses. The patent specification gave full-length DNA sequences for five strains of these types of viruses, and a sequence for a similar but harmless pig virus for comparison purposes. The issues raised below and on appeal were: (i) whether the district court’s constructions of certain claim terms were correct; and (ii) whether a narrowing amendment made in the PTO while a claim was under prior art rejection foreclosed all access to the doctrine of equivalents for the territory between the original language and the amended language or left some of it open. No statutory subject matter issue was raised below or in the appeal.
The Intervet panel majority, consisting of Judges Prost and Bryson, decided those issues largely in favor of the patentee, Merial. Judge Dyk issued an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part on the appealed questions. However, he also took the occasion to caution that the court’s decision in the case did not mean the court was acquiescing in the patent-eligibility of DNA, even in isolate form: “I write separately primarily to make clear that in construing the claims, we are not deciding that the claims as construed are limited to patentable subject matter.” He proceeded to address the main issue pending in Myriad, namely, whether isolates of DNA similar to DNA found in natural sources like humans or animals are eligible for patenting, or whether they run afoul of the Supreme Court’s pronouncements about products of nature in cases such as Funk Bros., Chakrabarty, and the recent Bilski decision. Judge Dyk indicated he did not think claiming the DNA in its isolated form was sufficient to distinguish it, for eligibility purposes, from the naturally occurring substance. He read the Supreme Court cases to require subject matter that is “qualitatively different” from the naturally occurring substance, and said it was “far from clear” that DNA isolates as claimed here met that test. Perhaps foreshadowing his position in Myriad, he stated:
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.
The impact of Judge Dyk’s views is difficult to predict. His is certainly an important judicial voice. However, he may not be on the panel drawn to hear the Myriad appeal, and the case may never be heard en banc. Moreover, these might not be Judge Dyk’s final positions on the issues. Only time will tell how this important case plays out.
* * * * *
 Association for Molecular Pathology v. United States Patent & Trademark Office, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 35418 (S.D.N.Y. April 2, 2010). Myriad Genetics was a co-defendant and co-owner of at least one of the patents in this declaratory action and exclusive licensee under others, hence Myriad has become the popular name of the case.
 2010 WL 3064311 (Fed. Cir. 2010).
 See U.S. Patent 6,368,601, col. 1, lines 6-10.
 Id. at *9.
 Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U.S. 127, 130 (1948).
 Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 309 (1980).
 Bilski v. Kappos, 130 S.Ct. 3218 (2010).
 Intervet, 2010 WL 3064311 at *11.