by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. (Robert Wagner on G+)
Today, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., No. 12-398, that a naturally-occurring DNA segment (or gene) is not patent eligible even if it has been isolated from a genome (reversing the Federal Circuit). The Court also ruled that cDNA (complementary DNA) is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring (affirming the Federal Circuit). Justice Thomas wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court, and Justice Scalia wrote a short concurrence. We have been following this case for some time (see here, here, and here).
The Court began by restating its position that laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The question for the Court was whether Myriad’s patents claimed any new and useful composition of matter.
To answer this question, the Court looked at what Myriad claimed. With respect to the DNA claims, Myriad claimed the DNA segment it found in nature, and it did not change or alter any of the genetic information in that segment. Because it claimed something naturally found in nature, it was not patent eligible subject matter.
With respect to the cDNA claims, the Court reached a different result. The cDNA is not found in nature, but is created in the laboratory. This key difference meant that it was patent eligible subject matter. The Court did not address whether these claims met the other requirements of the patent statute, such as §§ 102, 103, and 112.
The Court was also very clear on what it was not deciding in this case. There were no method claims at issue, such as an innovative method for manipulating genes. Similarly, there were no claims directed to how this new knowledge might be applied to achieve some useful result. The Court suggested (without holding) that those types of claims would be patent eligible. Finally, it noted that the claims were not directed to naturally occurring genetic code that had been altered to create some new and not natural DNA. The Court refused to suggest how it might address claims like those.
In the end, the Court stated 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.”
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