By Jacqueline Wright Bonilla, PhD, JD. Ms. Bonilla is a partner at Foley & Lardner and filed an amicus brief supporting Myriad's position.
In entering the fray of this discussion, I note that I, along with two of my colleagues at Foley & Lardner LLP, submitted an amicus brief in the AMP v. PTO (a/k/a ACLU v. Myriad) "gene patenting" case on behalf of our clients Rosetta Genomics and George Mason University. In addition to our brief, other colleagues at our firm submitted a different amicus brief on behalf of a different client, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. Both briefs, along with Myriad's brief and a number of other amicus briefs filed last week, support a reversal of the district court opinion as it pertains to "isolated DNA" composition claims. These briefs agree that such claims are patent eligible under current law, and should continue to meet the threshold of 35 U.S.C. § 101 as a matter of policy and social considerations. We are sensitive to dire consequence to biotech innovation in the face of a possible alternative outcome.
As it turns out, however, while such briefs agree on patent eligibility of "isolated DNA" claims, a number of briefs differ in viewpoints regarding applicable law, and even which cases are relevant versus not. As such, a reading of just the briefs filed with the Federal Circuit so far—even without considering the ACLU brief yet to be filed, much less amicus briefs filed in support of the ACLU's position—underscores a point worth mentioning.
The point is this: reasonable minds can differ on an interpretation of what constitutes relevant case law and how it should be interpreted in this case. This point is often missed in the hubbub we see in the press. For instance, many have commented on the amicus brief filed by the Department of Justice last week. Some have accused the DOJ of misreading the law entirely and attempting to eviscerate biotechnology innovation altogether. Such viewpoints misread the point of the DOJ brief, in my opinion.
Look what the DOJ brief actually says. It argues that the district court got it wrong in certain important respects. As stated in the DOJ brief:
… the district court erroneously cast doubt on the patent-eligibility of a broad range of manmade compositions of matter whose value derives from the information encoding capacity of DNA. Such compositions—e.g., cDNAs, vectors, recombinant plasmids, and chimeric proteins, as well as countless industrial products, such as vaccines and genetically modified crops, created with the aid of such molecules—are in every meaningful sense the fruits of human ingenuity and thus qualify as "'human-made inventions'" eligible for patent protection under section 101.  The district court therefore erred in invalidating the challenged composition claims, such as claim 2 of the '282 patent, that are directed solely to cDNAs.
DOJ brief, pages 9-10 (citations omitted). As part of this discussion, the DOJ likewise agrees with our position that claims directed to recombinant vectors comprising any isolated DNA—even DNA having a sequence exactly as it exists in nature—constitutes patentable subject matter. See DOJ brief, page 16, discussing claim 8 of the '282 patent. Thus, unlike the district court opinion, the DOJ proposal does not throw the entire biotech baby out with the bath water.
That said, it appears that the DOJ may cut off a hand of the biotech baby. It argues that "isolated DNA" comprising a sequence from genomic DNA as it exists in a body does not constitute patentable subject matter. The DOJ brief (pages 10-11) argues that the "chemical structure of native human genes is a product of nature," even "when that structure is 'isolated' from its natural environment."
This position presents a slippery slope of considerable concern to those affiliated with biotech innovators responsible for actually getting medical products to patients. For example, the DOJ sidesteps an important scientific fact: all isolated nucleotide compositions—regardless of sequence—are, in fact, engineered DNA molecules. Such DNA molecules are necessarily, by definition of their existence in an isolated form, "human made" inventions. These products simply do not exist without human intervention. Thus, how does one successfully distinguish what is really "human made"? Moreover, human involvement is needed to identify valuable isolated nucleic acid molecules, such as DNA vaccines, PCR probes, interfering or micro RNA, etc., and then isolate them. When exactly is the human involvement sufficient to meet § 101? An additional slippery slope in the DOJ position is that many non-nucleotide compositions also exist as "products of nature" in a human body or other natural physical state. These compositions include many valuable small molecule pharmaceuticals, proteins, antibodies, just to name a few. Such compositions could likewise be subject to the same legal reasoning propagated in the DOJ brief. In other words, the fallout of the DOJ's position has wide-sweeping implications, even if not as flabbergastingly debilitating as the district court opinion.
This all said, I propose that it does no good to simply assert that the DOJ (or any party or judge for that matter) incorrectly reads relevant case law and/or misunderstands the science wholesale. As mentioned already, reasonable minds can differ on case law interpretation in this case, and how to apply scientific facts to the law. The sheer number of briefs and differences in positions—see DOJ versus USPTO as just one example—indicates this phenomenon in vivid color.
Thus, at the end of the day, the Federal Circuit and/or Supreme Court may ultimately decide the outcome of this case based on policy and social/economic considerations. The courts will consider case law, of course, but in reality may only apply it after the fact. I also believe that any precedential decision issued here, either way, will necessarily have at least some negative fallout. In fact, the patent system itself intends negative fallout to some people by virtue of granting a right to exclude others for a limited time. Thus, keeping the ideals of patent law in mind, it will be critical for courts to choose a course of action that provides the most amount of good, while causing the least amount of collateral damage. In other words, forget all the clever legal mumbo-jumbo—what do we want to happen here for the better collective good?
My understanding of the patent system is that it exists for the very purpose of stimulating innovation, as well as public disclosure of that innovation. As discussed at length in our amicus brief (and by others), abolishing patent eligibility of genetic inventions—not to mention inventions in other areas of health and medicine potentially impacted by a decision here—will have more of a dampening effect on research, development and innovation than any patent right could ever have.
My hope is that courts will remain ever conscious of slippery slopes created by any one interpretation of the law and application of science. No one wins if we inappropriately dampen incentives for innovators to discover, apply and provide innovation to the benefit of humans.