By Jason Rantanen
Allergan, Inc. v. Sandoz Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2013) Download Allergan v Sandoz
Panel: Dyk (dissenting-in-part), Prost (author), O'Malley
Allergan illustrates how thin the line between obvious and nonobvious can sometimes be. Allergan owns several patents relating to its COMBIGAN combination ophthalmic drug treatment: Patent Nos. 7,323,463, 7,642,258, 7,320,976, and 7,030,149. Representative claim 1 of the '463 patent states:
1. A composition comprising about 0.2% timolol by weight and about 0.5% brimonidine by weight as the sole active agents, in a single composition.
Sandoz sought to market a generic version of COMBIGAN, triggering Allergan to file suit under 35 U.S.C. § 271(e)(2)(A) alleging infringement of its four patents. Sandoz stipulated to infringement of most of the asserted claims following claim construction and the district court subsequently found that all of the remaining asserted claims were not invalid after a bench trial. Sandoz's appeal focused primarily on the district court's nonobviousness ruling. For purposes of the appeal, the asserted claims of the '463, 258, and '976 patents were treated as a single group (I'll refer to these collectively as the '463 claims, since that's how the court refers to them) with claim 4 of the '149 patent treated separately.
The '463 claims – obvious: On appeal, the court unanimously reversed the district court's determination that the claims of the '463 patent were nonobvious. Both timolol (a beta blocker) and brimodine (an alpha2-agonist) were commercially available in their claimed concentrations at the time of the invention and were used to treat opthalmic conditions. The primary prior art reference, DeSantis, expressly taught serially administering both a beta blocker, such as timolol, with a brimodine in a fixed combination. It also provided "an express motivation to combine alpha2-agonists and beta blockers in order to increase patient compliance." Slip Op. at 8.
So where did the district court go wrong? First, the Federal Circuit held that it committed clear error by finding that "“while patient compliance may have created a need for fixed combination products, it did not motivate a person of skill in the art to develop fixed combinations with a reasonable expectation of success, because the FDA did not consider improving patient compliance as a factor in its approval decision.” Id. at 9, quoting district court. While FDA approval may be relevant to the motivation inquiry:
There is no requirement in patent law that the person of ordinary skill be motivated to develop the claimed invention based on a rationale that forms the basis for FDA approval. Motivation to combine may be found in many different places and forms; it cannot be limited to those reasons the FDA sees fit to consider in approving drug applications.
The CAFC also concluded that the district court erred by over-relying on the recognized unpredictability in the formulation carts. While unpredictablity is also relevant to the obviousness inquiry, it can be overcome simply by establishing that there was a reasonable probability of success. Furthermore, Allergan's challenges in developing its commercial COMBIGAN product were not particularly probative of the obviousness inquiry because the relevant inquiry is whether a person of ordinary skill in the art would have a reasonable expectation of success in developing the claimed invention, not COMBIGAN (which contains many elements in addition to those embodied in the claims).
In addition, the Federal Circuit concluded that the district court's factual findings on teaching away were insufficient to overcome the motivation provided by DeSantis and that the secondary considerations of nonobviousness did not weigh heavily in this analysis.
Claim 4 of the '149 patent – nonobvious: While the full panel agreed on the obviousness of the '463 claims, it split over claim 4 of the '149 patent. Claim 4 states:
4. A method of reducing the number of daily topical ophthalmic doses of brimondine administered topically to an eye of a person in need thereof for the treatment of glaucoma or ocular hypertension from 3 to 2 times a day without loss of efficacy, wherein the concentration of brimonidine is 0.2% by weight, said method comprising administering said 0.2% brimonidine by weight and 0.5% timolol by weight in a single composition.
The underlined language is essentially the same as claim 1 of the '463 patent. Central to the majority's conclusions was thus its treatment of the italicised language as a claim limitation: even though the creation of a single composition of 0.2% brimonidine by weight and 0.5% timolol by weight was obvious, administering it twice a day instead of three times a day without loss of efficacy was not.
The majority reached this because it was understood at the time of the invention that when brimonidine is dosed twice per day as opposed three times per day there is a loss of efficacy in the afternoon (the "afternoon trough") and Sandoz did not identify any "evidence in the prior art that would allow us to conclude that the addition of timolol to brimonidine dosed twice per day would eliminate the afternoon trough issue." Slip Op. at 13. Furthermore, even though it was "true that the prior art shows concomitant administration of brimonidine and timolol was dosed twice per day," that was insufficient to establish the obviousness of claim 4 because "this art does not show that there was no loss of efficacy associated with that treatment, let alone an elimination of the afternoon trough." Id. at 14.
Judge Dyk's dissent: Writing in dissent, Judge Dyk would have found Claim 4 invalid. Judge Dyk's disagreement highlights the issue of whether a claim can nonobvious if it is drawn to an unknown – but inherent – property of an obvious invention. "While a new and nonobvious method of using an existing (or obvious) composition may itself be patentable,  a newly-discovered result or property of an existing (or obvious) method of use is not patentable." Slip Op. at 18 (internal citations omitted).
In Judge Dyk's view, claim 4 includes only a single limitation (in this case, a step): "applying a fixed combination of 0.2% brimonidine and 0.5% timolol twice a day." Given the prior art, [t]he method of applying a fixed combination of 0.2% brimonidine and 0.5% timolol twice a day would therefore have been obvious over the prior art." Id. at 19.
This did not end the nonobviousness inquiry for the majority, however. "The majority’s outcome appears to rest, therefore, on the notion that claim 4 was not obvious because it claims the result of twice-a-day dosing—avoiding “a loss of efficacy in the afternoon.” Id., quoting Maj. Op. 13. This is not a limitation: "[a]voiding a “loss of efficacy” is not a separate step, but rather a result of the claimed method. . We should recognize in this case, as we did in Bristol-Myers Squibb, that '[n]ewly discovered results of known processes directed to the same purpose are not patentable.' Bristol-Myers Squibb, 246 F.3d at 1376." Slip Op. at 19 (internal citations omitted).
Consequences: It's worth noting that even though it prevailed in establishing the obviousness of the asserted claims of the '463 patent, Sandoz still cannot market its generic version of COMBIGAN: "The ’258, ’976, and ’149 patents each expire on April 19, 2022. Because we concludd that claim 4 of the ’149 patent is not invalid, the Appellants will be unable to enter the market until that date. Accordingly, we find it unnecessary to address the claims of the ’258 and ’976 patents." Slip Op. at 15.