Monday, April 5, 2010

Judge Grants Partial Summary Judgment to Plaintiffs: Myriad's Gene Patents Are Invalid

On March 29, Judge Sweet issued a ruling in Association for Molecular Pathology v. United States Patent and Trademark Office. Known as the lawsuit against Myriad Genetics, this case was posed to answer the widely debated question of whether human genes are patentable. In a 152 page opinion, the Court comprehensively addressed whether the defendants’ patents were valid under the standards set forth in 35 USC § 101 and patent law’s subsequent precedent.

For more information on the case, see our previous posting and our Law & Policy Update.

Judge Sweet granted partial summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs related to both the composition and the method claims, finding as a matter of law defendants’ patents were invalid under 35 USC § 101. (For more on the significance of summary judgment, see Genomic Law Report’s posting.) The Court dismissed the Constitutional claims against the USPTO based on the doctrine of Constitutional Avoidance. This means where it is possible to resolve plaintiffs claims without addressing the Constitutional questions, the Court is precluded from addressing these issues.

Defendants argued that by isolating and purifying DNA, they had sufficiently changed a product of nature into a fundamentally new product that satisfied subject matter patentability requirements. Judge Sweet responded to defendants’ arguments by systematically refuting each point. The Court thoroughly dismantled defendants’ reliance on precedent relating to products of nature in Parke-Davis, explaining that this case’s analysis only related to outdated dicta. Purification of a product of nature without additional handiwork or change to the substance is insufficient to meet the requirements for patentability because isolated DNA is not markedly different from native DNA, according to the Court. By definition, isolated DNA can be used for research tool applications where native DNA is unsuitable because it has an identical sequence.

Notably, Judge Sweet also took issue with defendants’ arguments that USPTO and the Court should treat patents for DNA identically to every other chemical. Unlike other chemicals, genes have a double nature because they are both chemical molecules and physical carriers of information. “DNA, and in particular, the ordering of the nucleotides, therefore serves as the physical embodiment of the laws of nature- those that define the construction of the human body,” wrote Judge Sweet. (124) These distinctions suggest that the Court recognizes the problematic implications of continuing to treat DNA as any other chemical- a frenetic race to patent the rest of the human genome without consideration of research or clinical care consequences.

The Court also invalidated defendants’ claims for analyzing and comparing sequences of the BRCA genes, finding that the claims did not meet the required physically transformative step. Preparatory processes such as isolating and sequencing the DNA only constitutes data gathering and are insufficient to transform an abstract mental process of comparing gene sequences into a transformative process. In addition, the Court invalidated defendants’ claim for comparing the growth rate of cells. In that patent, defendants claim stated that a slower growth of cells indicated a cancer therapeutic. Judge Sweet clarified that the essence of this claim merely recited the scientific method and constituted a patent on a basic scientific principle.

This opinion signals an important pause in frantic pursuit of more and more gene patents. Judge Sweet’s analysis commands us to rethink whether precedent ever actually supported patent eligibility for isolated DNA sequences or sequence comparison claims like Myriad’s.

The impact of this decision alone means that some of Myriad’s patents are invalid and it cannot enforce them in the future. However, defendants will likely appeal this decision to the Federal Circuit, which may choose to stay Judge Sweet’s ruling until it renders a final decision. If the final ruling happens to affirm this Court’s findings, then the USPTO would conform its examination policies to avoid issuing patents on isolated DNA or the comparison or analysis of DNA sequences.

-Katherine Drabiak-Syed

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