Federal Circuit Reverses, Finds Opioid Addiction Treatment Patent Nonobvious

The Federal Circuit reversed the District of Delaware’s decision to invalidate Orexo’s opioid treatment patent as obvious because obviousness was not proved by clear and convincing evidence. Specifically, the Court pointed to the absence of a teaching in the prior art that citric acid could serve as a carrier particle for the drug agonist.  The Court also noted that the lower court improperly discounted evidence of objective indicia of nonobviousness. Orexo AB v. Actavis Elizabeth LLC, No. 2017-1333, 2018 WL 4288961, at *1 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 10, 2018) (before Newman, Hughes, and Stoll, J.) (opinion by Newman, J.)

Actavis filed an ANDA application to market a generic version of Zubsolv, a drug approved for the treatment of opioid addiction. Orexo subsequently initiated a Hatch-Waxman litigation asserting Actavis infringed U.S. Patent No. 8,940,330, which is directed to the use of a “substitution therapy” for the treatment of opioid addition.  Substitution therapies were known in the art and were used to reduce addiction, dependency, and abuse by using a partial opioid agonist. Those substitution therapies were in turn abused, however, when instead of taking the therapy orally, as was prescribed, drug abusers would dissolve the drug and inject it intravenously. Thus, the prior art had developed a four-to-one ratio of agonist to antagonist that was a viable substitution therapy when taken orally, but resulted in unpleasant symptoms when injected intravenously.  The patent at issue sought to improve on this formulation, to further reduce abuse, by “enhancing agonist effectiveness of buprenorphine in the tablet and thus reducing the amount available on dissolving and injecting the product.” It accomplished this by adhering microparticles of buprenorphine, the agonist, to carrier particles of citric acid while also including naloxone, the antagonist, in a 4:1 ratio.  In allowing the patent, the Examiner had pointed to the structure of the patent’s drug as the likely cause of its higher bioavailability, stating that “the mere presence of citric acid … is insufficient”.

The district court held the patent claims invalid based on the combination of prior art that disclosed the 4:1 ratio with additional prior art disclosing that citric acid increased bioavailability and how to make such mixtures.  The district court rejected several arguments from the patent owner as being directed to unclaimed features. For example, patent owner argued that the prior art would have dissuaded a POSA from using citric acid because it taught that a lowered pH, which would result from using citric acid, would reduce the bioavailability of naloxone and thus compromise the 4:1 ratio. This argument was rejected, however, because the ratio was an unclaimed feature.


The Federal Circuit reversed.  It pointed to the fact that Actavis’ expert cited no reference for his reasoning that the prior art disclosed citric acid as a carrier particle.  Indeed, the Court noted, Actavis conceded at oral argument that no reference teaches using citric acid as a carrier particle.  Thus, the “record does not contain clear and convincing evidence of a teaching or suggestion to use citric acid particles as a carrier for this opioid product in substitution therapy, or that the actual beneficial results would be obtained.”

As Judge Newman explained writing for the majority:

“The question is not whether the various references separately taught components of the [patent] formulation, but whether the prior art suggested the selection and combination achieved by the [patent] inventors.  Although the reference [patent] showed that buprenorphine bioavailability in the film formulation is affected by pH, this not a suggestion of the sublingual tablet interactive formula in the [challenged patent] or a teaching of its benefit in deterring abuse.

The references show that the field of opioid biopharmacology has received extensive study. The [patent] provides a significant improvement.  Despite the extensive study, this improvement over the then-available treatments for addition is not proposed or suggested in the references.  There is no suggestion that the specified elements should be selected and combined, and that the designated sublingual formulation would be less subject to abuse than prior formulations for substitution therapy.  Although the need to reduce this abuse was known, recognizing a need does not render the solution obvious.”

The Court also found that the district court erred in discounting the unexpected results produced.  The Court therefore reversed and remanded for appropriate further proceedings.

Take Away

The proper inquiry in an obviousness analysis is “not whether the various references separately taught components of the [patent] formulation, but whether the prior art suggested the selection and combination achieved by the [patent’s] inventors.”

The Author

Joseph Robinson

Joseph Robinson has over 20 years of experience in all aspects of intellectual property law. He focuses his practice in the pharmaceutical, life sciences, biotechnology, and medical device fields. His practice encompasses litigation, including Hatch-Waxman litigation; licensing; counseling; due diligence; and patent and trademark prosecution. He has served as litigation counsel in a variety of patent and trademark disputes in many different jurisdictions, and has also served as appellate counsel before the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Joe also focuses on complex inter partes matters before the U.S Patent and Trademark Office, inventorship disputes, reexaminations and reissues. His experience includes numerous interferences, a particular advantage in new U.S. Patent and Trademark Office post-grant proceedings. He also counsels on patent–related U.S. Food and Drug Administration issues, including citizen petitions, Orange Book listing, and trademark issues. For more information and to contact Joe please visit his profile page at the Troutman Sanders website.

Joseph Robinson

Dustin Weeks is a Partner in the intellectual property practice group at Troutman Sanders. His practice spans all areas of intellectual property law, including patent prosecution, patent litigation (including Hatch-Waxman litigation), and client counseling. He represents clients ranging from start-ups and solo inventors to Fortune 500 companies. Dustin works closely with his clients to learn their business objectives so that he can tailor strategies to procure, protect, and enforce their intellectual property. Dustin specializes in post-grant proceedings (e.g. Inter Partes Reviews) before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) where he has extensive experience representing both patent owners and petitioners across a wide range of technologies, including wireless networking, pharmaceuticals, MEMs devices, medical devices, and electro-mechanical consumer devices. Dustin's broad experience in patent prosecution, counseling, and patent litigation uniquely positions him to navigate the blended practice of post-grant proceedings.

For more information or to contact Dustin, please visit his Firm Profile Page.

Joseph Robinson

Robert Schaffer is an intellectual property partner at Troutman Sanders. Bob applies more than 30 years of experience to IP counseling and litigation. His work includes patent procurement, strategic planning and transactional advice, due diligence investigations, district court patent cases, and Federal Circuit appeals. He regularly handles complex and high-profile domestic and international patent portfolios, intellectual property agreements and licensing, IP evaluations for collaborations, mergers, and acquisitions. In disputed court cases Bob’s work includes representing and counseling client in ANDA litigations, complex patent infringement cases and appeals, and multidistrict and international cases. In disputed Patent Office matters his work includes representing and counseling clients in interferences, reexaminations, reissues, post-grant proceedings, and in European Oppositions. For more information and to contact Bob please visit his profile page at the Troutman Sanders website.

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Discuss this

There are currently 2 Comments comments.

  1. Eric Berend September 23, 2018 5:59 am

    “…the fact that Actavis’ expert cited no reference for his reasoning that the prior art disclosed citric acid as a carrier particle. Indeed, the Court noted, Actavis conceded at oral argument that no reference teaches using citric acid as a carrier particle.”

    So, IP pirate hired a professional liar and called him an “expert” before the Court.

    This is the same cabal who have ‘authoritatively’ fed the U.S. public the false canard and derogatory misnomer “patent troll”.

    Quite similar to Lemley’s vanity published, non-peer-reviewed brief being cited while ’37 Law Professors’ brief was summarily ignored by the Royal Seven.

    Patent trespassers will resort to any rhetoric, any deception, any device “necessary”, no matter how fraudulent or criminal, to steal the hard-earned innovations of inventors.

  2. LazyCubicleMonkey September 29, 2018 12:20 am


    I’ve never heard the term patent troll be applied to pharmaceutical field/patents. Do you have any examples?

    As a novice in the field of pharmaceuticals, wouldn’t varying the ratios of agonist vs antagonist be an obvious optimization (via trial & error)?

    (The citric acid thing sounds novel though).