Guest Commentary by Paul Cole,Professor of Intellectual Property Law,
Bournemouth University, and European Patent Attorney, Lucas & Co, Warlingham,
ASSOCIATION FOR MOLECULAR PATHOLOGY v MYRIAD GENETICS – an isolated decision?
By Paul Cole
How does the Supreme Court decision of 13 June 2013 match international opinion on the patentability of biological material? From a European and indeed from an Australian standpoint it can be said with some confidence: not so well.
In Europe patentability in this genus of fields of endeavour was considered in the 1990’s in a debate that resulted in the passage of the European Biotechnology Directive of 6 July 1998,  OJL 175/1. For the relevant philosophy underlying that Directive it is only necessary to quote the relevant recitals (with emphasis added):
(16) Whereas patent law must be applied so as to respect the fundamental principles safeguarding the dignity and integrity of the person; whereas it is important to assert the principle that the human body, at any stage in its formation or development, including germ cells, and the simple discovery of one of its elements or one of its products, including the sequence or partial sequence of a human gene, cannot be patented; whereas these principles are in line with the criteria of patentability proper to patent law, whereby a mere discovery cannot be patented;
(17) Whereas significant progress in the treatment of diseases has already been made thanks to the existence of medicinal products derived from elements isolated from the human body and/or otherwise produced, such medicinal products resulting from technical processes aimed at obtaining elements similar in structure to those existing naturally in the human body and whereas, consequently, research aimed at obtaining and isolating such elements valuable to medicinal production should be encouraged by means of the patent system;
(20) Whereas, therefore, it should be made clear that an invention based on an element isolated from the human body or otherwise produced by means of a technical process, which is susceptible of industrial application, is not excluded from patentability, even where the structure of that element is identical to that of a natural element, given that the rights conferred by the patent do not extend to the human body and its elements in their natural environment;
(21) Whereas such an element isolated from the human body or otherwise produced is not excluded from patentability since it is, for example, the result of technical processes used to identify, purify and classify it and to reproduce it outside the human body, techniques which human beings alone are capable of putting into practice and which nature is incapable of accomplishing by itself;
(22) Whereas the discussion on the patentability of sequences or partial sequences of genes is controversial; whereas, according to this Directive, the granting of a patent for inventions which concern such sequences or partial sequences should be subject to the same criteria of patentability as in all other areas of technology: novelty, inventive step and industrial application; whereas the industrial application of a sequence or partial sequence must be disclosed in the patent application as filed…
The consequential legislative provision is to be found in Article 3 which was arrived at following a three-year debate involving the EU Commission and the European Parliament:
1. For the purposes of this Directive, inventions which are new, which involve an inventive step and which are susceptible of industrial application shall be patentable even if they concern a product consisting of or containing biological material or a process by means of which biological material is produced, processed or used.
2. Biological material which is isolated from its natural environment or produced by means of a technical process may be the subject of an invention even if it previously occurred in nature.
In Australia the patentability of such materials has recently been confirmed by the Federal Court of Australia in Cancer Voices Australia v Myriad Genetics Inc  FCA 65 (15 February 2013), see Vaughn Barlow, CIPA, March 2013, 122-123. This very well-reasoned and detailed decision considers relevant US and UK opinions including the Kalo v Funk opinion, and explains:
105 In my opinion the patentability of the isolated nucleic acids referred to in the disputed claims does not turn upon what changes have been made to the chemical composition of such substances as a result of them having been isolated. In particular, the question of whether these substances constitute patentable subject matter does not depend upon the type of chemical bond that may have been broken in the process of isolating them. It is inevitable that some bonds will be broken in the course of isolating nucleic acids, but it is not apparent from the evidence that these will necessarily include covalent bonds. As I have already explained, the disputed claims do not require that the isolated nucleic acids they describe differ from those found in the cell in this or any other respect so far as their chemical composition is concerned.
106 Accordingly, the issue in this case turns upon whether an isolated nucleic acid, which may be assumed to have precisely the same chemical composition and structure as that found in the cells of some human beings, constitutes an artificial state of affairs in the sense those words should be understood in the present context. There are three considerations which lead me to think that it does.
107 First, in explaining the concept of manner of manufacture as one involving the creation of an artificial state of affairs, it is apparent that the High Court in NRDC was deliberate in its use of very expansive language. Not only did the High Court emphasise the “broad sweep” of the concept involved, it also made clear that metaphorical analysis may not be helpful in determining whether or not something constitutes patentable subject matter.
108 Secondly, in the absence of human intervention, naturally occurring nucleic acid does not exist outside the cell, and “isolated” nucleic acid does not exist inside the cell. Isolated nucleic acid is the product of human intervention involving the extraction and purification of the nucleic acid found in the cell. Extraction of nucleic acid requires human intervention that necessarily results in the rupture of the cell membrane and the physical destruction of the cell itself. And purification of the extracted nucleic acid requires human intervention that results in the removal of other materials which were also originally present in the cell. It is only after both these steps are performed that the extracted and purified product may be properly described as “isolated” in the sense that word is used in the disputed claims.
109 Thirdly, as Dann’s Patent demonstrates, the isolation of a particular micro-organism may require immense research and intellectual effort. In that case, it was only as a result of an intensive research effort that the isolated micro-organism in question could be made available for use in the manufacture of the new antibiotic. It was fortuitous for the patentee that it was its employees who were first to isolate the new micro-organism and first to deploy it in the manufacture of the new drug. That will not always be so. It would lead to very odd results if a person whose skill and effort culminated in the isolation of a micro-organism (a fortiori, an isolated DNA sequence) could not be independently rewarded by the grant of a patent because the isolated micro-organism, no matter how practically useful or economically significant, was held to be inherently non-patentable. In my view it would be a mistake, and inconsistent with the purposes of the Act, not to give full effect in such situations to the broad language used by the High Court in NRDC.
The Court went on to explain that its findings were consistent inter alia with a report of the Australian Law Reform Commission of June 2004 entitled Genes and Ingenuity: Gene Patenting and Human Health (ALRC 99, 2004). That report concluded that it would be difficult, on any rational basis, to confine reform to genetic materials and technologies, and that the extension of the reform to other fields – where the patenting of pure and isolated chemicals that occur in nature was uncontroversial – could have unknown consequences.
What a shame that nobody told the Supreme Court of this body of opinion and legislation in Europe and Australia, which is believed consistent with the opinions and legislation existing in most other countries of the industrialised world, or that if it was aware of this position elsewhere the Court decided to ignore it in favour of a judge-made exception to the express provisions of 35 USC 101!
European equivalents of the patents in issue have been considered by the EPO Appeal Board. For example, T 1213/05 UNIVERSITY OF UTAH/Breast and ovarian cancer concerns the BRCA 1 gene. T 666/05 UNIVERSITY OF UTAH/Mutations relates to the use of the same gene in diagnosis.
In case T 1213/05, opponents argued that the socio-economic consequences of patenting the claimed subject-matter should be considered under a.53(a) EPC because these consequences touched ethical issues. Patenting of the claimed subject-matter would not only result in increased costs for patients, but would also influence the way in which diagnosis and research would be organized in Europe, which would be clearly to the detriment of patients and doctors. The fact that a particular group of patients, i.e. patients suspected to carry a predisposition to breast cancer, would be faced with severe disadvantages and would become dependent on the patent proprietor was contrary to human dignity so that the claimed subject-matter constituted an exception to patentability under a.53(a) EPC. In rejecting this argument the Appeal Board held that the possible consequences of the exploitation of the patent were are the result of the exclusionary nature of the rights granted by a patent, i.e. the right to stop competitors from using the invention. Logically such an objection applied to the exploitation of any patent and was the same for all patents. A resolution of the European Parliament, P6_TA(2005)0407 of 26 October 2005 "Patents on biotechnological inventions" did not vest the EPO with the task of taking into account the socio-economic effects of the grant of patents in specific areas and of restricting the field of patentable subject-matter accordingly. Similar arguments were rejected by the Board, in a different composition, in Case T 666/05.
In the US litigation it was argued that patents for isolated genomic DNA inhibited more innovation than they incentivised. However, even if that proposition is accepted it appears arguable that this is also the result of the exclusionary nature of the rights granted by a patent and is the same for all patents.
It is submitted that the decision is based on a narrow and short-term view of the public interest. The drug amoxicillin was invented in 1959, became available in 1972 and was the subject of much litigation in the 1960’s and 1970’s in which this author personally participated. The relevant patents have now expired and the drug which continues in widespread use is now a generic in a competitive marketplace. In addition to the US and the UK, the drug is now made in, for example, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand Singapore, Spain, Thailand and South Africa. The well-known Indian generic company Ranbaxy was approved a supplier for the US market by the FDA in 2003. An invention can enrich the inventor or an employer for a limited period provided by the patent system: mankind is enriched forever.