November 16, 2015

Federal Circuit Considers Rehearing on Denial of Patent to Noninvasive Prenatal Testing of Fetal DNA

Non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) is an alternative to the invasive techniques of amniocentesis or chorionic villi sampling used in reproductive medicine, both of which carry some risk to the fetus. The research demonstrating that fetal DNA could be recovered from maternal serum prompted the development of testing techniques that could simply rely on maternal blood testing in order to recover fetal DNA and perform genetic analysis. The scientists were awarded U.S. Patent No. 6,258,540. Claim 1 of the patent: 
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. 
Sequenom, Inc. holds the rights to the patent. It sued Ariosa Diagnostics and several other genetic testing companies for infringement of the patent. In Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, Inc., issued in June, the Federal Circuit ruled that the patent claims to methods for detecting and recovering the fetal DNA from a maternal sample were invalid for lack of patentable subject matter (35 U.S.C. § 101) (see here). That decision followed a sequence of recent Supreme Court cases, AMP v. Myriad (2013) (Myriad) and Mayo v. Prometheus (2012) (Mayo) that each invalidated patent claims in the life sciences for a lack of patentable subject matter. The Federal Circuit relied on the analytic framework from Mayo to dissect the patent claims, summarizing the test as follows: 
First, we determine whether the claims at issue are directed to a patent-ineligible concept. If the answer is yes, then we next consider the elements of each claim both individually and “as an ordered combination” to determine whether additional elements “transform the nature of the claim” into a patent-eligible application. 
The court noted that the presence of fetal DNA in maternal serum was a patent- ineligible natural phenomenon (step 1) and then proceeded to step 2, where it considered whether any other elements of the patent claim (detecting, amplifying) operated to transform the unpatentable natural phenomenon: 
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. The claims of the ’540 patent at issue in this appeal are not directed to patent eligible subject matter and are therefore, invalid. 
Judge Linn filed a concurrence, but made it clear that he did so because Mayo demanded the application of a fairly unforgiving test that led to an incorrect result in this case. In August, Sequenom filed a petition with the Federal Circuit requesting a rehearing en banc, contending that the panel’s decision wrongly applied the Mayo framework to find a groundbreaking invention unpatentable (see here): 
To avoid this absurd result, all the Court must do is reaffirm—as did the Supreme
Court in Mayo—that a combination of known steps that incorporates or is motivated by an unpatentable natural phenomenon is nonetheless patentable if that combination “considered as a whole” was not routine before the patent disclosed it.
Sequenom then described the future impact of the decision as "an existential threat:" 
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. 
Ariosa has recently filed its response to the Sequenom petition. Ariosa argues that the Federal Circuit’s decision properly utilized the Mayo-based framework as an analytic device:   
Appellants’ only legal argument (as opposed to their dire policy-based prognostications) in favor of rehearing en banc is that Mayo, Myriad and Diehr must be read as teaching that “a combination of known steps that incorporates or is motivated by an unpatentable natural phenomenon is nonetheless patentable if that combination ‘considered as a whole’ was not routine before the patent disclosed it.” Yet Appellants’ misreading of those precedents amounts to nothing short of a wholesale revision of the Supreme Court’s two-part test for determining whether a claim recites patent-eligible subject matter.   
The contrasting arguments of the parties frame a question for the Federal Circuit regarding whether a patent claim embedding a natural phenomenon requires a holistic interpretation (Sequenom) or should be subject to a more splintered analysis (Ariosa). A decision from the Federal Circuit on the petition for rehearing is likely to issue in the next several months; if they do not accept it, the decision could then be appealed to the Supreme Court, which has issued two life science decisions on patentable subject matter in the last three years.

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