US Government Argues in Court that Isolated Genes are Unpatentable

AMP v. Myriad (Fed. Cir. 2010)

In March, 2010, District Court Judge Robert Sweet held Myriad's gene patent claims invalid for failing to satisfy the subject matter eligibility requirements of 35 U.S.C. 101.  The ruling was directed toward claims that cover particular isolated DNA molecules (genes) and processes of detecting and screening for those genes, but was written broadly enough to essentially invalidate all patents covering genes that were isolated from an organism. 

Last month, I heard a rumor that Obama administration science and legal advisors outside of the USPTO supported Judge Sweet's ruling.  At the time I disregarded that suggestion as unlikely. I was wrong. [Andy Pollack at the NYTimes has the scoop]

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has now filed an amicus brief supporting the lower court decision — arguing that isolated genes are unpatentable because they improperly claim a product of naturer [Link to Brief]:

The district court correctly held . . . that genomic DNA that has merely been isolated from the human body, without further alteration or manipulation, is not patent-eligible. Unlike the genetically engineered microorganism in Chakrabarty, the unique chain of chemical base pairs that induces a human cell to express a BRCA protein is not a “human-made invention.” Nor is the fact that particular natural mutations in that unique chain increase a woman’s chance of contracting breast or ovarian cancer. Indeed, the relationship between a naturally occurring nucleotide sequence and the molecule it expresses in a human cell — that is, the relationship between genotype and phenotype — is simply a law of nature. The chemical structure of native human genes is a product of nature, and it is no less a product of nature when that structure is “isolated” from its natural environment than are cotton fibers that have been separated from cotton seeds or coal that has been extracted from the earth.

. . . .

Thus, the patent laws embrace gene replacement therapies, engineered biologic drugs, methods of modifying the properties of plants or generating biofuels, and similar advanced applications of biotechnology. Crossing the threshold of section 101, however, requires something more than identifying and isolating what has always existed in nature, no matter how difficult or useful that discovery may be.

. . . .

A product of nature is unpatentable because it is not the inventive work of humankind. That essential rule cannot be circumvented by drafting claims for the same natural product removed from its natural environment and proclaiming the result “pure.”

Several other amici have filed briefs:

Federal Circuit: Patentability of Isolated Genes

Association for Molecular Pathology v. USPTO and Myriad Genetics (Fed. Cir. 2010)

In a landmark 2010 declaratory judgment decision, a Southern District of New York court invalidated claims from seven Myriad patents associated with the BRCA1/2 breast and ovarian cancer genes.  The patents include both composition claims covering isolated DNA molecules and method claims covering the processes of detecting and screening for BRCA mutations.  The lower court held that these claims all fail the patentable subject matter eligibility test of 35 U.S.C. §101.  A typical invalidated claim includes Claim 1 of Patent No. 5,747,282 which reads “1.  An isolated DNA coding for a BRCA1 polypeptide, said polypeptide having the amino acid sequence set forth in SEQ ID NO:2.” (The amino acid sequence No. 2 was provided as a part of the patent filing).

Myriad has now filed its Federal Circuit appeal brief on the merits and argues two main points: (1) that the declaratory judgment plaintiffs had no standing to sue because there was no actual case or controversy between them and Myriad and (2) that Myriad's patents cover inventions that fit well within the broad scope of Section 101 subject matter eligibility. As I wrote earlier, I believe that the Federal Circuit will reverse.

Standing: A general rule of appellate advocacy is to lead with your best argument. One caveat involves standing — when standing is argued, it is invariably argued first. Although the weaker of its two primary arguments, Myriad led with its case for no standing.

It is important to remember how this case arose — with twenty plaintiffs joining together to sue Myriad and to ask the Federal Court to declare Myriad's patents invalid.

Declaratory Judgment Jurisdiction is governed by Article III of the US Constitution, the Declaratory Judgment Act of 1934, and most recently, the 2007 Supreme Court case of MedImmune v. Genentech which eliminated the reasonable-apprehension-of-suit test that had been previously followed by the Federal Circuit. 

The basic question for this case is whether sufficient controversy and adversity exists between the parties or, as Myriad argues, did the lower court improperly provide an advisory opinion.  The Supreme Court restated its standing test in MedImmune — asking “whether the facts alleged, under all the circumstances, show that there is a substantial controversy, between parties having adverse legal interests, of sufficient immediacy and reality to warrant the issuance of a declaratory judgment.” Myriad argues that there is no controversy between the parties because Myriad has not taken any (recent) action toward the plaintiffs and that any controversy between the parties lacks “sufficient immediacy.”

Here, neither plaintiffs’ complaint nor the district court’s opinion identifies any “affirmative act” by Myriad within the past ten years putting plaintiffs at risk of an infringement suit. There is no allegation, much less evidence, that Myriad ever identified the patents-in-suit (or any claim thereof) to any plaintiff, or identified any plaintiff’s product or conduct as infringing. In fact, there is no allegation that Myriad was even aware of any plaintiff’s “ability and desire” to infringe (A1034-64), let alone that Myriad evaluated any product or conduct to determine infringement. Accordingly, plaintiffs have no basis for declaratory judgment jurisdiction because “the totality of the circumstances analysis in the instant case is that which has not occurred.”

The district court disagreed with these arguments — holding that a controversy existed based on Myriad's activity against researchers along with an understanding “within the research community . . . [that] Myriad has taken the position that any BRCA1/2 related activity infringes its patents and that Myriad will assert its patent rights against parties engaged in such activity.” 

Discovering the Importance of a Mutation: The important scientific discovery in this case is the knowledge that BRCA mutations predict breast and ovarian cancer.  Of course, that informational discovery by-itself cannot be patented because it represents an abstract idea rather than a useful implementation.  The mutation itself occurs in nature and therefore is not sufficiently new to be patentable. The patents therefore were drafted to cover “isolated” forms of the mutated gene and methods of isolating the gene.  As with many software algorithm patents that are “tied” to a computer, the core of the Myriad invention rests in the unpatentable information/algorithm but the claims are drafted to include technical features that ground the invention in a specific, practical use of the information discovered.  Here, once the information regarding BRCA mutations was known, the actual isolation of the genes arguably did not take any further inventing because the generic isolation process was already well known.

With this setup, the Federal Circuit will be asked to determine whether tying the informational discovery to the isolated compound or method of isolation is sufficient to move the patent outside of the scope of abstract ideas and natural phenomena.  The question may be whether the Court should follow Diehr or instead follow Flook and Benson. The Bilski decision does not help in analyzing the claim here other than by revitalizing the precedential value of Flook and Benson.

Amicus briefs supporting Myriad will be filed shortly.

CHALLENGE.GOV: Prizes as an Additional Incentive Layer

In my patent law course last week, we had discussion of the role of a patent system as compared with other potential governmental pro-innovation initiatives such as grants or prizes.  Our current patent system does not provide any strong mechanisms for channeling innovation toward particular identified issues.  Rather, investors and inventors choose their own paths according to their own subjective perception of the potential market upside.  When an important challenge is publicly identified, we may want to add an additional layer of incentive to funnel research in a particular direction. In that vein, the Obama Administration's Chief Technology Office Aneesh Chopra and Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra unveiled CHALLENGE.GOV at yesterday's GOV 2.0 conference.  CHALLENGE.GOV identifies 35 challenges and offers prizes for folks who provide novel solutions.

Identified challenges include:

  • Create nutritious food that kids like — $12,000 prize.
  • Reducing waste at college football games — school prestige award.
  • Best original research paper as judged by the Defense Technical Information Center.
  • Provide a whitepaper on how to improve reverse osmosis membranes — up to $100,000.
  • Digital Forensics Challenge
  • Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge (Create the best virtual world for the US Army) — $25,000 in prizes.
  • Advance the field of wireless power transmission — $1.1M for a team that can wirelessly drive a mechanical climber to 1 kilometer height at a speed of at least 5 meters/sec. 
  • Strong Tether Challenge — create a material with 50% more tensile strength than anything on the market for $2 million.
  • etc.