The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down patents on two genes associated with ovarian breast cancer, held by Myriad Genetics Inc.
This is a major decision. The genes are the ones that Angelina Jolie had tested before she had a double mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery. Who knows what effect this will have on companies that are attempting to OWN natures genetic code, especially food plants?
JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court. Here's the beginning of his lengthy writing:
Respondent Myriad Genetics, Inc. (Myriad), discovered the precise location and sequence of two human genes, mutations of which can substantially increase the risks of breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad obtained a number of patents based upon its discovery. This case involves claims from three of them and requires us to resolve whether a naturally occurring segment of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is patent eligible under 35 U. S. C. 101 by virtue of its isolation from the rest of the human genome.
We also address the patent eligibility of synthetically created DNA known as complementary DNA (cDNA), which contains the same protein-coding information found in a segment of natural DNA but omits portions within the DNA segment that do not code for proteins. For the reasons that follow, we hold that a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but that cDNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring. We, therefore, affirm in part and reverse in part the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
Judge Thomas recapitulates some of the science of DNA, then says
Changes in the genetic sequence are called mutations. Mutations can be as small as the alteration of a single nucleotide--a change affecting only one letter in the genetic code. Such small-scale changes can produce an entirely different amino acid or can end protein production alto gether. Large changes, involving the deletion, rearrangement, or duplication of hundreds or even millions of nucleotides, can result in the elimination, misplacement, or duplication of entire genes. Some mutations are harmless, but others can cause disease or increase the risk of disease. As a result, the study of genetics can lead to valu able medical breakthroughs.
This case involves patents filed by Myriad after it made one such medical breakthrough. Myriad discovered the precise location and sequence of what are now known as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Mutations in these genes can dramatically increase an individual's risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. The average American woman has a 12- to 13-percent risk of developing breast cancer, but for women with certain genetic mutations, the risk can range between 50 and 80 percent for breast cancer and between 20 and 50 percent for ovarian cancer.
Before Myriad's discovery of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, scientists knew that heredity played a role in establishing a woman's risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, but they did not know which genes were associated with those cancers.
Myriad identified the exact location of the e BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes on chromosomes 17 and 13.
Myriad's patents would, if valid, give it the exclusive right to isolate an individual's BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (or any strand of 15 or more nucleotides within the genes) by breaking the covalent bonds that connect the DNA to the rest of the individual's genome. The patents would also give Myriad the exclusive right to synthetically create BRCA cDNA. In Myriad's view, manipulating BRCA DNA in either of these fashions triggers its "right to exclude others from making" its patented composition of matter under the Patent Act. 35 U. S. C. -154(a)(1); see also -271(a) ("[W]hoever without authority makes . . . any patented invention . . . infringes the patent").
But isolation is necessary to conduct genetic testing, and Myriad was not the only entity to offer BRCA testing after it discovered the genes. The University of Pennsylvania's Genetic Diagnostic Laboratory (GDL) and others provided genetic testing services to women. Petitioner Dr. Harry Ostrer, then a researcher at New York University School of Medicine, routinely sent his patients' DNA samples to GDL for testing. After learning of GDL's testing and Ostrer's activities, Myriad sent letters to them asserting that the genetic testing infringed Myriad's patents. App.
94--95 (Ostrer letter). In response, GDL agreed to stop testing and informed Ostrer that it would no longer accept patient samples. Myriad also filed patent infringement suits against other entities that performed BRCA testing, resulting in settlements in which the defendants agreed to cease all allegedly infringing activity. 689 F. 3d, at 1315.
Myriad, thus, solidified its position as the only entity providing BRCA testing.
Some years later, petitioner Ostrer, along with medical patients, advocacy groups, and other doctors, filed this lawsuit seeking a declaration that Myriad's patents are invalid under 35 U. S. C. -101. 702 F. Supp. 2d, at 186. Citing this Court's decision in MedImmune, Inc. v. Genentech, Inc., 549 U. S. 118 (2007), the District Court denied Myriad's motion to dismiss for lack of standing.
This is followed by extensive discussion of the appeals and counter appeals at different levels.
Here's a sampling from the judgment:
Section 101 of the Patent Act provides:
"Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful . . . composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title."
We have "long held that this provision contains an important implicit exception[:] Laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable." Mayo, 566 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 1) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). Rather, ""they are the basic tools of scientific and technological work'" that lie beyond the domain of patent protection. Id., at ___ (slip op., at 2). As the Court has explained, without this exception, there would be considerable danger that the grant of patents would "tie up" the use of such tools and thereby "inhibit future innovation premised upon them." Id., at ___ (slip op., at 17). This would be at odds with the very point of patents, which exist to promote creation. Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U. S. 303, 309 (1980) (Products of nature are not created, and ""manifestations . . . of nature [are] free to all men and reserved exclusively to none'").
The rule against patents on naturally occurring things is not without limits, however, for "all inventions at some level embody, use, reflect, rest upon, or apply laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas," and "too broad an interpretation of this exclusionary principle could eviscerate patent law." 566 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at
2). As we have recognized before, patent protection strikes a delicate balance between creating "incentives that lead to creation, invention, and discovery" and "imped[ing] the flow of information that might permit, indeed spur, in vention." Id., at ___ (slip op., at 23). We must apply this well-established standard to determine whether Myriad's patents claim any "new and useful . . . composition of matter," -101, or instead claim naturally occurring phenomena.
It is undisputed that Myriad did not create or alter any of the genetic information encoded in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. The location and order of the nucleotides existed in nature before Myriad found them. Nor did Myriad create or alter the genetic structure of DNA. Instead, Myriad's principal contribution was uncovering the precise location and genetic sequence of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes within chromosomes 17 and 13. The question is whether this renders the genes patentable.
There's more discussion of some legal details, then Judge Thomas continues:
In this case, by contrast, Myriad did not create anything. To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention.
Groundbreaking, innovative, or even brilliant discovery does not by itself satisfy the -101 inquiry. In Funk Brothers Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U. S. 127 (1948), this Court considered a composition patent that claimed a mixture of naturally occurring strains of bacteria that helped leguminous plants take nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil. Id., at 128--129. The ability of the bacteria to fix nitrogen was well known, and farmers commonly "inoculated" their crops with them to improve soil nitrogen levels. But farmers could not use the same inoculant for all crops, both because plants use different bacteria and because certain bacteria inhibit each other. Id., at 129-- 130. Upon learning that several nitrogen-fixing bacteria did not inhibit each other, however, the patent applicant combined them into a single inoculant and obtained a patent. Id., at 130. The Court held that the composition was not patent eligible because the patent holder did not alter the bacteria in any way. Id., at 132 ("There is no way in which we could call [the bacteria mixture a product of invention] unless we borrowed invention from the discovery of the natural principle itself "). His patent claim thus fell squarely within the law of nature exception. So do Myriad's. Myriad found the location of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but that discovery, by itself, does not render the BRCA genes "new . . . composition[s] of matter," -101, that are patent eligible.
Indeed, Myriad's patent descriptions highlight the problem with its claims.
In subsequent language Myriad explains that the location of the gene was unknown until Myriad found it among the approximately eight million nucleotide pairs contained in a subpart of chromosome 17. See Ibid.
The '473 and '492 patents contain similar language as well. See id., at 854, 947. Many of Myriad's patent descriptions simply detail the "iterative process" of discovery by which Myriad narrowed the possible locations for the gene sequences that it sought.6
See, e.g., id., at 750. Myriad seeks to import these extensive research efforts into the -101 patent eligibility inquiry. Brief for Respondents 8--10, 34. But extensive effort alone is insufficient to satisfy the demands of -101.
Nor are Myriad's claims saved by the fact that isolating DNA from the human genome severs chemical bonds and thereby creates a nonnaturally occurring molecule. Myriad's claims are simply not expressed in terms of chemical composition, nor do they rely in any way on the chemical changes that result from the isolation of a particular section of DNA. Instead, the claims understandably focus on the genetic information encoded in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
There is more discussion of some of the details of the claims made and the science, then, this:
It is important to note what is not implicated by this decision. First, there are no method claims before this Court. Had Myriad created an innovative method of manipulating genes while searching for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, it could possibly have sought a method pat ent. But the processes used by Myriad to isolate DNA were well understood by geneticists at the time of Myriad's patents "were well understood, widely used, and fairly uniform insofar as any scientist engaged in the search for a gene would likely have utilized a similar approach," 702 F. Supp. 2d, at 202--203, and are not at issue in this case.
Similarly, this case does not involve patents on new applications of knowledge about the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Judge Bryson aptly noted that, "[a]s the first party with knowledge of the [BRCA1 and BRCA2] sequences, Myriad was in an excellent position to claim applications of that knowledge. Many of its unchallenged claims are limited to such applications." 689 F. 3d, at 1349.
Nor do we consider the patentability of DNA in which the order of the naturally occurring nucleotides has been altered. Scientific alteration of the genetic code presents a different inquiry, and we express no opinion about the application of -101 to such endeavors. We 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.
* * *
For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the Federal Circuit is affirmed in part and reversed in part.
You can read the whole decision and discussion here.
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