U.S. Supreme Court rules on patentability of DNA

On 13 June 2013 the Supreme Court ruled in the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics case that DNA is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated. However, cDNA is patent eligible because it is a product that is not naturally occurring. Thereby the Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the decision of the Federal Circuit.

Myriad Genetics (“Myriad”) discovered the precise location and sequence of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes; mutations of these genes can increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.  This discovery enabled Myriad to develop medical tests to detect mutations in these genes in patients to assess their cancer risk. Myriad obtained several patents which would give it the exclusive right to isolate a patient’s BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and would give the respondent the exclusive right to create BRCA cDNA.

A group of plaintiffs, which included doctors, breast cancer patients and researchers, joined a lawsuit by the Association for Molecular Pathology (“AMP”) seeking a declaration that Myriad’s patents are invalid under 35 U.S.C. §101.

The District Court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs since Myriad’s patents covered products of nature and were therefore invalid. The Federal Circuit however, found that both isolated DNA and cDNA were patent eligible.

The Supreme Court held that the principal contribution of Myriad was its uncovering of the precise location and genetic sequence of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. According to Diamond v. Chakrabarty it is central to the inquiry for patent eligibility whether the action was new “with markedly different characteristics from any found in nature”.  In this case Myriad did not create or alter the genetic information or the genetic structure. Even though it found these important genes, a §101 patent eligibility inquiry is not by itself satisfied with a groundbreaking, innovative or brilliant discovery.

The Supreme Court further describes how Myriad’s patent descriptions highlight the problems with its claims:

Firstly, they describe in detail the process of discovery, but §101 demands are not satisfied by extensive effort alone.

Secondly, even though the isolation of DNA from the human genome severs those chemical bonds that bind the gene molecules together, Myriad’s claims are not saved by the fact.

Finally, Myriad cites J.E.M. Ag Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred Int’l, Inc., a case where Congress has endorsed a PTO practice in subsequent legislation, arguing that the past practice of the PTOin awarding gene patents is entitled to deference.  In this case however, there has not been such an enforcement and the United States argued in both the Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court that isolated DNA was not patent eligible under §101.

cDNA is patent eligible since it is not a product of nature. DNA takes the shape of a double helix and consists of two chemically joined nucleotides. The sequences of DNA nucleotides contain information to create the strings of amino acids which are used to build proteins in the body. Nucleotides coding for amino acids are exons and nucleotides not coding for amino acids are introns. Composite DNA (cDNA) are synthetically created exons-only strands of nucleotides, i.e. cDNA omits the introns.

The Supreme further notes that this case neither involves method claims, patents on new applications of knowledge nor the patentability of DNA where the order of naturally occurring nucleotides has been altered. [Nicole Daniel]