While the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion did not extend the statutory research use exemption to patented research tools under 35 U.S.C. ss.271 (e)(1) in Merck KGaA v. Integra LifeSciences I, Ltd . (2005 WL 1386324 (U.S.)), the Court unanimously ruled for a broader interpretation of the exemption from patent infringement for use of a patented invention “solely for uses reasonably related to the development and submission of information under a Federal law which regulates the manufacture, use, or sale of drugs.” The Court specifically noted that patented “research tools” were not part of that interpretation.

Some lawyers for these companies also said it was hypocritical of drug companies, which constantly assert the importance of strong patent protection in spurring innovation, to argue that they should be permitted to infringe upon patents held by others.

The Supreme Court said in a footnote that this case was about research using patented drugs themselves, not about tools used to study those drugs. Therefore, it did not address whether drug companies could use research tools without worrying about patents.

This case involved the question of whether uses of patented inventions in preclinical research, the results of which are not ultimately included in a submission to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are exempted from infringement by 35 U. S. C. §271(e)(1). While it is generally an act of patent infringement to “mak[e], us[e], offe[r] to sell, or sel[l] any patented invention . . . during the term of the patent therefore,” the Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act of 1984 provides:

“It shall not be an act of infringement to make, use, offer to sell, or sell within the United States or import into the United States a patented invention (other than a new animal drug or veterinary biological product (as those terms are used in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Act of March 4, 1913) . . .) solely for uses reasonably related to the development and submission of information under a Federal law which regulates the manufacture, use, or sale of drugs . . . .”

The clause permits drug companies to infringe on patents “solely for uses reasonably related to the development and submission of information” to the Food and Drug Administration. But it is not specifically restricted to generic drugs, so there have been questions about how far it extends.

The appeals court that handles patent cases ruled in 2003 that the exemption should be narrow, covering, in effect, clinical trials but not earlier work like test-tube experiments to determine which of several compounds might be the best drug candidate.

Now, the Supreme Court ruled that the exemption applied to more than clinical trials. The Court stated that:

Basic scientific research on a particular compound, performed without the intent to develop a particular drug or a reasonable belief that the compound will cause the sort of physiological effect the researcher intends to induce, is surely not “reasonably related to the development and submission of information” to the FDA. It does not follow from this, however, that §271(e)(1)’s exemption from infringement categorically excludes either (1) experimentation on drugs that are not ultimately the subject of an FDA submission or (2) use of patented compounds in experiments that are not ultimately submitted to the FDA. Under certain conditions, we think the exemption is sufficiently broad to protect the use of patented compounds in both situations.

We decline to read the “reasonable relation” requirement so narrowly as to render §271(e)(1)’s stated protection of activities leading to FDA approval for all drugs illusory. Properly construed, §271(e)(1) leaves adequate space for experimentation and failure on the road to regulatory approval: At least where a drugmaker has a reasonable basis for believing that a patented compound may work, through a particular biological process, to produce a particular physiological effect, and uses the compound in research that, if successful, would be appropriate to include in a submission to the FDA, that use is “reasonably related” to the “development and submission of information under . . . Federal law.” §271(e)(1).

The use of a patented compound in experiments that are not themselves included in a “submission of information” to the FDA does not, standing alone, render the use infringing. The relationship of the use of a patented compound in a particular experiment to the “development and submission of information” to the FDA does not become more attenuated (or less reasonable) simply because the data from that experiment are left out of the submission that is ultimately passed along to the FDA. Moreover, many of the uncertainties that exist with respect to the selection of a specific drug exist as well with respect to the decision of what research to include in an IND or NDA.

The decision means that drug companies can do much of the laboratory, animal and human testing needed to win approval of a drug even if the new drug would infringe on the patent on another product. However, the new drug could not be sold until the patent on the other drug expired.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals court for reconsideration in light of the new ruling.

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