August 19, 2015

Sequenom Seeks En Banc Rehearing After Federal Circuit's Denial of Prenatal DNA Testing Patent

In June, the Federal Circuit ruled that a prenatal testing method for detecting fetal DNA in maternal serum was not patentable, violating the prohibition against the patenting of natural phenomena (see here). In the case, Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom Inc. (2015), a representative claim from U.S. Patent No. 6,258,540 is as follows:
1. A method for detecting a paternally inherited nucleic acid of fetal origin performed on a maternal serum or plasma sample from a pregnant female, which method comprises amplifying a paternally inherited nucleic acid from the serum or plasma sample and detecting the presence of a paternally inherited nucleic acid of fetal origin in the sample.
In the invalidity challenge asserted by Ariosa when the company was sued for patent infringement by Sequenom, Ariosa argued that the method claim effectively covered (or preempted) all uses of the newly observed natural phenomenon - namely, the presence of fetal DNA in maternal blood. The method is centered on that discovery - detect the fetal DNA and perform genetic assessments on that sample, thereby avoiding more risky invasive prenatal procedures. The trial court, and then the Federal Circuit, concluded that the method patent claims were invalid, that they did attempt to patent a natural phenomenon, not an actual invention. As the Federal Circuit stated: 
Thus, in this case, appending routine, conventional steps to a natural phenomenon, specified at a high level of generality, is not enough to supply an inventive concept. Where claims of a method patent are directed to an application that starts and ends with a naturally occurring phenomenon, the patent fails to disclose patent eligible subject matter if the methods themselves are conventional, routine and well understood applications in the art. 
Now, Sequenom has filed a petition at the Federal Circuit, asking for an en banc review of the court's panel decision in June. Sequenom challenges the panel's application of a test for patent eligibility derived from the Supreme Court's 2012 decision in Mayo v. Prometheus. Further, Sequenom argues that the impact of the patent denial on future method patent claims that center on a newly discovered natural phenomena is devastating to future innovation:
The full Court’s intervention is particularly necessary because, if this Court does not step in and draw this line, the panel’s rule threatens to swallow many more meritorious inventions along with this one. The core of nearly every major innovation is the discovery of a fact about the natural world that motivates inventors to combine existing techniques to achieve new practical results. Accordingly, the panel’s test would threaten an invention implementing the discovery that a certain form of Ebola virus provokes an immune response that prevents infection (to take just one timely example). Nearly all vaccines have this problem: The hard part is determining the natural law that a given attenuated virus creates lasting immunity; once you know that, the rest is “routine.” The same goes for future holy-grail discoveries like simple, non-invasive methods of detecting early-stage cancer— ironically, the cheaper and simpler the method discovered, the less patentable it will be. In truth, the problem goes well beyond diagnostics or even medicine: If combining conventional techniques in an unconventional fashion, motivated by a discovery about nature’s laws, is unpatentable subject matter, it is hard to see how any process claim can survive. 
The Ariosa decision particularly impacts method claims, not composition of matter claims (which were already severely impacted by AMP v. Myriad in 2013). Whether the Federal Circuit decides to accept the petition and rehear the case en banc is unknown; what is known, however, is that the Ariosa decision does jeopardize the validity of similar method claims to the detection of many biochemical or molecular relationships, just at a time when much of modern biotech research is devoted to uncovering exactly that kind of information.

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