The patents at issue are directed a test to screen for mutations in BRCA genes that correlate with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The inventors identified markers in DNA sequences from individuals with inherited breast and ovarian cancers. This knowledge allowed Myriad to create diagnostic testing services for women.
Myriad began sending cease-and-desist letters to doctors who performed testing that it believed infringed its patents. A number of doctors and researchers then filed a declaratory judgment action against Myriad Genetics, Inc., claiming that certain claims in seven of Myriad’s patents were invalid because they contain patent-ineligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The district court agreed with the plaintiffs and invalidated all fifteen challenged claims. The Federal Circuit reversed as to three of the claims (in a 2–1 decision) and unanimously affirmed the district court’s decision as to the remainder.
The Claims at Issue
Myriad’s claims fell into three broad categories: (1) three composition claims, (2) a screening method claim, and (3) eleven comparing/analyzing method claims. The Federal Circuit found that the first two types were patent-eligible under § 101, but the third type was not.
The composition claims were for two “isolated” human genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) that are free-standing portions of a larger, native DNA molecule and synthetic complementary DNA molecule (cDNA). In essence, these isolated genes are sections of DNA that has been cleaved from a naturally-occurring DNA molecule. Myriad isolated the portions of the naturally-occurring DNA molecule that correlated with the cancer and patented it.
The screening method claim recites the steps of growing host cells transformed with an altered BCRA gene in the presence of a potential cancer therapeutic, determining the growth rate of these cells, and comparing the growth rate of the host cells. The comparing/analyzing method claims, on the other hand, simply call for comparing samples from a tumor of the isolated genes from a patient with a non-tumor sample.
The Court Finds the Composition Claims Are Patentable Subject Matter
Before making its determination, the Court traced the state of the law regarding § 101 by looking at the Supreme Court’s decisions in Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303 (1980) and Funk Borthers Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U.S. 127 (1948). These decisions involved whether man-made, living microorganisms are patentable under § 101.
Ultimately, the Federal Circuit concluded that § 101 requires that a composition’s identity must be “markedly different” in comparison with what exists in nature for the composition to be patent-eligible:
The distinction, therefore, between a product of nature and a human-made invention for purposes of § 101 turns on a change in the claimed composition’s identity compared with what exists in nature. Specifically, the Supreme Court has drawn a line between compositions that, even if combined or altered in a manner not found in nature, have similar characteristics as in nature, and compositions that human intervention has given “markedly different,” or “distinctive,” characteristics.
Judge Lourie found that Myriad’s composition claim satisfied this test because the isolated genes, while they could be found inside a naturally-occurring DNA molecule, had distinct chemical identities and natures different from the DNA molecule once they were removed. The isolated genes are not the same molecules as exist in the body, and the creation of these isolated genes requires human intervention. He rejected the argument that the isolated genes are merely purified forms of a natural material.
Judge Moore, in her concurrence, reached the same result. She found that a fragment of a DNA sequence has different properties and different physical characteristics than the parent DNA from which it is obtained. In addition, the cDNA gene is entirely different than the naturally-occurring DNA molecule because introns are removed and it contains the opposite (complementary) sequence of RNA. The exact cDNA gene is not found in nature, so it is easily patent-eligible.
In his dissent, Judge Bryson sharply disagreed with respect to the non-cDNA composition claims. He would have held that any gene that is found in nature, even if found within a larger DNA molecule, is unpatentable. Judge Bryson analogized these genes to minerals discovered in the earth. Simply extracted a naturally-found mineral is not patentable, so simply extracting a naturally-found gene from DNA should not be patentable.
The Method Claims
The decisions with respect to the method claims were much easier for the Court, and the Judges unanimously agreed. The comparing/analyzing claims were not patent eligible because they amounted to nothing more than the mental steps of comparing two genes. There was no transformation involved, so they were not patent eligible. The screening method claim, on the other hand, had a number of transformations central to the purposes of the claimed process. Thus, it was patent eligible.
Standing to Bring the Action
A significant part of the decision also addressed whether any of the plaintiffs had standing to bring the claim under the Declaratory Judgment Act. All three Judges agreed that at least one of the doctors did have standing. For those interested in standing issues and what is sufficient under the Declaratory Judgment Act, this decision is an interesting read.
The Federal Circuit seems to have a different test for genetic materials than other compositions. All three Judges agreed that extracting a naturally-found mineral or element from a rock would not be eligible for patent protection. Under the majorities’ holding, however, extracting genetic material from a naturally-occurring DNA molecule is eligible for patent protection (assuming the other requirements of the Patent Act can be met). The decision maintains a long history of allowing patents in the field of genetics.
It will be interesting to see if this case is addressed en banc or whether the Supreme Court will weigh in on these issues in its upcoming case in Mayo Collaborative Services. Given the sharp dissent in this case, and the importance of these types of patents, it is unlikely that we have seen the last of these decisions.