In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Myriad Genetics saying that the company cannot patent natural DNA.  Association for Molecular Pathology et al., v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., et al.  (SCt 12-398_8njq; No. 12–398, June 13, 2013).

The District Court concluded that Myriad’s claims were invalid because they covered products of nature. The Federal Circuit initially reversed, but on remand in light of Mayo v. Prometheus Labs, found both isolated DNA and cDNA patent eligible.

The Supreme Court looked at only one question:

Are human genes patentable?

Now, the Supreme Court has held that naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but cDNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring.

Importantly, the Court noted:

(a) cDNA is not a “product of nature,” so it is patent eligible under§101. cDNA does not present the same obstacles to patentability as naturally occurring, isolated DNA segments.

(b) This case, it is important to note, does not involve method claims, patents on new applications of knowledge about the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, or the patentability of DNA in which the order of the naturally occurring nucleotides has been altered.

Under the Patent Act, “Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.” 35 U.S.C. § 101.

ex-13016921Myriad 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.  Knowledge of the location of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes allowed Myriad to develop medical tests that are useful for detecting mutations in a patient’s BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and thereby assessing whether the patient has an increased risk of cancer.

Myriad obtained patents on two “isolated” human genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2 and certain mutations in these genes associated with a predisposition to breast and ovarian cancers. Representative composition claims include claims 1, 2, and 5 of the ’282 patent:

1.  An isolated DNA coding for a BRCA1 polypeptide, said polypeptide having the amino acid sequence set forth in SEQ ID NO:2.

2.  The isolated DNA of claim 1, wherein said DNA has the nucleotide sequence set forth in SEQ ID NO:1.

5.  An isolated DNA having at least 15 nucleotides of the DNA of claim 1.

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.

Below, the Court explains it’s decision:

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.

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 13 Cite as: 569 U. S. ____ (2013) 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 andBRCA2 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.

The Court also spelled out what remains patent eligible:

cDNA does not present the same obstacles to patentability as naturally occurring, isolated DNA segments. As already explained, creation of a cDNA sequence from mRNA results in an exons-only molecule that is not naturally occurring.8 Petitioners concede that cDNA differs from natural DNA in that “the non-coding regions have been removed.” Brief for Petitioners 49. They nevertheless argue that cDNA is not patent eligible because “[t]he nucleotide sequence of cDNA is dictated by nature, not by the lab technician.” Id., at 51. That may be so, but the lab technician unquestionably creates something new when cDNA is made. cDNA retains the naturally occurring exons of DNA, but it is distinct from the DNA from which it was derived. As a result, cDNA is not a “product of nature” and is patent eligible under §101, except insofar as very short series of DNA may have no intervening introns to remove when creating cDNA. In that situation, a short strand of cDNA may be indistinguishable from natural DNA.9

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 patent. 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,

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.

Clearly, the market recognized that the decision does not eliminate the ability to patent diagnostic tests.  Shares of Myriad Genetics (MYGN) jumped nearly 11% to a four-year high in morning trading Thursday after the U.S. Supreme Court issued the mixed ruling on whether its genetic products could be patented and affirmed the right for Myriad to patent synthetic DNA (cDNA).

image credit: breast examination from bigstock


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