Supreme Court to Consider Patentability of Natural Phenomena—Grants Cert in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court granted cert in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc. (No. 10-1150) to address whether a patentee can monopolize basic, natural biological relationships. This case could have far-reaching effects for those patenting medical procedures and biological processes. In particular, the Court appears to be confronting the issue of what are the bounds of patentable subject matter with natural phenomena and processes. The specific question presented is:

Whether 35 U.S.C. § 101 is satisfied by a patent claim that covers observed correlations between blood test results and patient health, so that the claim effectively preempts all uses of the naturally occurring correlations, simply because well-known methods used to administer prescription drugs and test blood may involve “transformations” of body chemistry.

The Court previously began to consider this issue in Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings v. Metabolite Laboratories, Inc., 548 U.S. 124 (2006), but dismissed the case for technical reasons. Three dissenting Justices (Breyer, Stevens, and Souter) and would have decided the case and held that such claims are not patentable subject matter because they cover a law of nature and a basic scientific relationship. The full Court will now consider this issue.

The Patent at Issue

At issue in Mayo Collaborative is Prometheus’s patent claim involving the treatment of autoimmune disorders by administering a drug and determining whether the dosage was appropriate based on an observed metabolite level in the patient. Once administered, the body automatically converts the drug into a metabolite, the amount of which determines whether the dosage was appropriate. Specifically, the claim reads:

1. A method of optimizing therapeutic efficacy for treatment of an immune-mediated gastrointestinal disorder, comprising:

(a) administering a drug providing 6-thioguanine to a subject having said immune-mediated gastrointestinal disorder; and

(b) determining the level of 6-thioguanine in said subject having said immune-mediated gastrointestinal disorder,

wherein the level of 6-thioguanine less than about 230 pmol per 8×108 red blood cells indicates a need to increase the amount of said drug subsequently administered to said subject and

wherein the level of 6-thioguanine greater than about 400 pmol per 8×108 red blood cells indicates a need to decrease the amount of said drug subsequently administered to said subject.

The Case Below

Defendant (Mayo) argued that this claim was invalid because it was not patentable subject matter–all it amounts to is administering a drug and observing a reaction. Prometheus did not try to patent the reaction, which is a naturally-occurring one. Mayo also argued that the claim was unpatentable as a matter of public policy because of its broad scope and the effect it would have on public health and research. In particular, Mayo argued that any doctor that administered a drug and saw the results may infringe the patent, even if the doctor never took any action based on the results.

The patent was held invalid in the District Court, but the Federal Circuit reversed, finding that the claims satisfied the “machine-or-transformation” test under 35 U.S.C. § 101. On its first appeal, the Supreme Court remanded so that the Federal Circuit could consider the then-recent decision in Bilski v. Kappos, 130 S. Ct. 343 (2010). On remand, the Federal Circuit again reversed the District Court, finding that the patent claims were not invalid. Mayo again petitioned the Supreme Court for cert, which was granted yesterday.

What This Case Means

This case should clarify the scope of patents, especially as they relate to biological and natural processes. In Bilski, the Court rejected the Federal Circuit’s prior “machine-or-transformation” test as being too rigid. It will be interesting to see if and how they revise or clarify that standard. In addition, the Court will likely have to address whether an idea that is not abstract can nonetheless be so broad as to be unpatentable on that basis (as opposed to being anticipated or obvious).

If the LabCorp decision is any guide, the Court (or at least Justice Breyer) will be particularly hostile to claims that appear to cover laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas. In that case, which also involved a patent claim for correlating test results with a physical condition, Justice Breyer found the claim invalid because it simply patented a natural phenomenon, albeit in the cloak of the abstract patent language of a process. In addition, Justice Breyer was concerned about the chilling effect of patents like these on doctors and their patients.

Regardless of what the Court determines, this case should be particularly important for those in the biological and pharmaceutical markets and could have a large impact on what kinds of inventions and processes can be patented.

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One response to “Supreme Court to Consider Patentability of Natural Phenomena—Grants Cert in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories

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