Thursday, April 29, 2010

Havasupai Tribe and Arizona State University Settlement Agreement: ASU to Return the Blood Samples

On April 21, 2010 the New York Times reported that the Havasupai tribe and Arizona State University (ASU) arrived at a settlement agreement relating to litigation over ASU’s alleged misuse of the Havasupai tribe’s blood samples originally collected for diabetes research. (Visit our forthcoming Human Specimen Collection, Biobanking, and Genetic Research Law and Policy Update for more information on the case.)

After millions of dollars spent on litigation in various suits, the tribe and ASU entered into the settlement agreement in March of this year. The settlement contains several provisions including details for ASU’s performance obligations such as:

(1) ASU will pay the plaintiffs a sum of $700,000;

(2) ASU will return all blood samples in its possession; and

(3) ASU will return documents such as lab books and genealogy materials containing research derived from the blood samples, it will direct IRBs at the universities involved in the suit not to approve ongoing or new research using the samples, and it will provide the tribe a list of entities to which it previously transferred the samples.

The settlement agreement also set forth a creative five year collaborative between ASU and the tribe designed to address the tribe’s needs in the areas of education, health and nutrition, economic development, architecture, engineering, and legal governance. Several of these provisions include pursuing funding opportunities to build a high school near the reservation, partnering ASU nursing students to provide clinical care in Supai village, and working with the tribe to develop business plans related to its tourism programs.

Like many other settlements, this agreement specified a monetary exchange. ASU's transfer of $700,000 (split among the forty-one plaintiffs) seems nominal compared to plaintiffs’ request for $25 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages. However, unlike other agreements, the money was arguably not the central concern here and would never alone be sufficient to remedy plaintiffs’ alleged damages without addressing the use and possession of the blood samples.

The return of the samples and research materials highlights several important issues that suggest our current standards and assumptions governing biobanking research are inadequate to address the needs of all research subjects, especially if blood and DNA is particularly significant to a group's cultural values and sense of identity.

First, subjects must be fully informed when they provide consent to use their blood for genetic research and the scope of the research should not exceed the original consent. Second, using the blood for purposes beyond the scope of the original consent may present serious dignitary concerns that researchers may overlook because the substance of these concerns may not even register as a possible harm or risk. Indeed, one of the ASU researchers maintained she was advancing important research and refered to the tribe's claims as "hysterical." Lastly, the importance of how the samples are (mis)used can be so vital to a particular group that return of the samples may be the only mechanism to fully remedy the group’s alleged dignitary harms.

-Katherine Drabiak-Syed

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