Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked NIH in a July 12 letter to force compulsory licensing of Myriad’s BRCA breast and ovarian cancer genetic test under the “march-in rights” provision of the Bayh-Dole Act. “Testimony presented to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office made clear that many women are not able to afford the testing provided by Myriad.” Senator Leahy also charged that the Myriad test “was developed with federally-funded research.” See Leahy Urges Action.
Myriad received an exclusive license to develop the test from universities operating under Bayh-Dole Act. The law allows nonprofit institutions receiving federal R&D funds to own and license resulting inventions so they can be commercialized for use by the public.
Critics of Bayh-Dole have long sought to reinterpret its statutory standards under which the government can compel universities to issue compulsory licenses as a weapon to control prices. This was not the intent of the law.
There are a great many people inside the patent industry that are working hard to convince themselves that the Supreme Court decision in Association of Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics is not so bad. The argument goes that the Supreme Court explicitly stated that cDNA is patent eligible and that Chakrabarty remains good law. The trouble with both rationales is that they are incorrect.
It seems to me that anyone who tries to convince themselves that Myriad is anything other than a disaster is just fooling themselves. It does no good to put our heads in the sand and ignore what the Supreme Court said as if by doing so it will make a difference. Anyone who is honest with themselves knows how the district courts will interpret Myriad, and it will not be in a patentee friendly manner.
But before going to far, let me conclusively demonstrate with the Supreme Court’s own explicit language why those who are trying to convince themselves, and others, that the decision is workable are wrong.
Widely divergent views have formed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Association of Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., No. 12-398, slip. op. (U.S. Jun. 13, 2013). Some commentators have reacted with dire predictions for the biotech industry, suggesting that the Court’s holding has unduly narrowed patent protection traditionally granted to DNA technology and has disincentivized researchers in the field, particularly those from small start-ups. Other commentators suggest that the Supreme Court’s decision in Myriad willactually benefit genetic research, particularly researchers at the start-up level. The authors of this post tend to agree with this latter view.
The Court’s holding with respect to what constitutes unpatentable DNA subject matter was quite limited. Justice Thomas, writing for the Court, explained that “[w]e merely hold that genes and the information they encode are not patent eligible under § 101 simply because they have been isolated from the surrounding genetic material.” Id. at 18.In other words, a naturally occurring DNA segment does not qualify as patentable subject matter merely by virtue of its “isolation from the remainder of the human genome.” Id. at 1. Despite this limitation, the Court identified and implicated several related areas of technology that would not, as a matter of law, qualify as unpatentable subject matter. Indeed, if read carefully, the opinion actually provides instructions on how to successfully procure patent rights for technologies related to genes that have been identified and isolated.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday that isolated DNA is not patent eligible under 35 U.S.C. §101. SeeAssociation of Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. Or, put more precisely, the Court ruled that Myriad’s isolated DNA claims as written are not patent eligible. The Court further ruled that similar cDNA claims are for the most part patent eligible, seemingly because the information underlying the claimed molecule omits some content of the information which underlies the full gene.
Spoiler alert: If you are the type of person who enjoys reading about convoluted analogies to baseball bats, plucked leaves, mined gold and surgically removed livers, you are out of luck. Mercifully, and quite amazingly, the Court managed to avoid that morass.
A pivotal point is the question of whether Myriad was claiming information or a chemical compound. Of course, the unique thing about DNA is that it is both (i) a chemical compound comprised of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and hydrogen, and can be bound to cellular proteins, and (ii) an informational blueprint for proteins which form the building blocks of every living thing.
Earlier today the United States Supreme Court issued a decision that fundamentally changed the law of patent eligibility that has existed in the United States for the past 30 years, calling into question at least many tens of thousands of issued patents and many tens of thousands of pending patent applications. See Supremes Rule Isolated DNA and some cDNA Patent Ineligible.
With lightening speed, the United States Patent and Trademark Office has sent a memorandum to patent examiners relating to the aforementioned Supreme Court decision in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. The 1-page memorandum from Drew Hirshfeld, who is Deputy Commissioner for Patent Examination Policy, is direct. “Examiners should now reject…”
One of the central policy issues injected into the current case of AMP v. Myriad Genetics is whether the BRCA patents are good for innovation and ultimately for patients. Specifically, ACLU and PubPat allege that the patents have hindered research, blocked innovation, and harmed patient access to BRCA testing. No matter how many times these allegations are repeated, all available evidence shows concerns over research and innovation to be unfounded. More importantly, two natural experiments give us an opportunity to evaluate actual patient access to testing, the ultimate measure of whether the patents are doing their job of incentivizing delivery of new technology to the public. Both of these experiments show that exclusive licensing of strong “gene patents” not only does not harm patient access to quality testing, but is instead vital to it.
In the impassioned words of Linda Bruzzone, a Lynch syndrome mutation carrier and head of Lynch Syndrome International: “Many of us with Lynch Syndrome wish there had been a patent in place for us. It would have protected us and perhaps protected the lives of our loved ones.” L. Bruzzone, Oral Comments at USPTO Public Roundtable on Genetic Diagnostic Testing (January 10, 2013).
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