Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Lawsuit Challenging Myriad’s BRCA1 and BRCA2 Patents Will Go Forward: Judge Rejects Defendants’ Attempts to Preclude Plaintiffs’ Day in Court

Association for Molecular Pathology v. United States Patent and Trademark Office, Civil Action No. 09-4515 RWS ((S.D.N.Y. 2009) known as the lawsuit against Myriad Genetics challenging its gene patents related to BRCA1 and BRCA2 will go forward.

On November 1, 2009 Judge Robert Sweet handed down an order denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss. In the 85 page order, Judge Sweet accepted many of plaintiffs’ arguments set forth in the complaint and accompanying affidavits, finding that the court may properly hear the case and plaintiffs may properly sue each defendant.

The court flatly rejected defendants’ assertion that plaintiffs could not use the court as an arena to challenge questions of patentability.

Judge Sweet declined to adopt defendants’ arguments that the existence of the Patent Act as a comprehensive statutory scheme demonstrates Congressional intent to provide an internal remedy and preclude judicial challenges of the nature in this suit. The court noted that despite the USPTO’s statutory scheme to address patent questions, it does not provide a comparable statutory framework to raise Constitutional concerns and provide remedy accordingly; thus, plaintiffs may still bring an action to enforce the asserted Constitutional rights.

The court’s arrival at this reasoning is closely connected to Judge Sweet’s lengthy description of why the plaintiffs’ allegations of Constitutional violations are adequate and why the Court will not grant defendants’ motions to dismiss. The order described plaintiffs’ assertions that Myriad’s patents in question grant Myriad ownership rights over products of nature, laws of nature, natural phenomena, abstract ideas, basic human knowledge, and thought, which would violate the First Amendment. Additionally, plaintiffs pled that Myriad’s ownership of the patents in question inhibited further research, which would violate of Article I, section 8, clause 8 of the Constitution that directs Congress (and by delegation, the USPTO) to promote the progress of science.

The court also rejected Myriad’s arguments that plaintiffs could not show Myriad acted affirmatively to enforce the patents or that plaintiffs undertook meaningful preparation to potentially infringe the patents.

Judge Sweet adopted facts set forth in plaintiffs’ complaint and affidavits describing how Myriad sent out cease and desist letters to researcher plaintiffs and initiated two actions against infringers, demonstrating Myriad’s affirmative actions and willingness to enforce the patents. Importantly, the court further noted that given the widespread knowledge of the breadth of Myriad’s claims and its willingness to enforce its patents, a court would likely find that infringement of the patents would be considered willful and result in treble damages- meaning a scientist attempting BRCA research could be subject to extraordinary damages above merely compensating Myriad for any monetary losses.

Additionally, Judge Sweet accepted the researcher plaintiffs’ assertions that they are ready, willing, and able to infringe the patent because they are prepared to advance BRCA research, and or offer testing, and could do so within a matter of weeks. The court also noted that the plaintiff women affected by breast or ovarian cancer could take advantage of testing alternatives to find another test covered by their insurance or obtain a second opinion (options currently denied to them because of Myriad’s patents) that would potentially classify them as contributory infringers, meaning they could also properly sue the defendants.

The case moves forward and the court will hear parties’ oral arguments on motions for summary judgment on January 21, 2010. At this hearing, the court will decide whether there are genuine issues of material fact in dispute that would preclude the court from ruling as a matter of law for one party. If Judge Sweet’s order is any indication, a multitude of problems exist that are ripe for a hearing, and in the near future this court could squarely address these contentious issues arising from gene sequence patents. Perhaps finally the judicial system could address both the USPTO's and Congress' failure to re-examine patentability standards for gene sequences and decide whether issuing gene patents run contrary to Constitutional and statutory requirements.

-Katherine Drabiak-Syed

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