By Timo Minssen
I am happy to announce that on April 20th the New York attorney Robert M. Schwartz and I have filed an amicus brief at the US Supreme Court with Berkeley-based Andrew J. Dhuey as Counsel of Record. The brief, which was signed by 10 prominent European and Australian Law Professors as amici curiae, adds a European perspective to the many amicus briefs that have been submitted in support of Sequenom’s petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court. Sequenom’s petition in Case No. 15-1182 was filed on March 21, 2016 and seeks review of the Federal Circuit’s controversial decision in Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, Inc., 788 F.3d 1371, reh’g denied, 809 F.3d 1282 (Fed. Cir. 2015). The case concerns the revocation of Sequenom’s patent claims directed to inventive methods of genetic testing by detecting and amplifying paternally inherited fetal cell-free DNA (cffDNA) from maternal blood and plasma. Before the development of this highly beneficial, non-invasive prenatal diagnostic test, patients were placed at higher risk and maternal plasma was routinely discarded as waste. Distinguishing this case from previous Supreme Court decisions and highlighting the mitigating effects of other patentability requirements, we are concerned that the Federal Circuit’s overly rigid approach to claims eligibility decision might jeopardize the development of new therapies in an increasingly important area of modern medicine.
As most Bill of Health readers know, the US Supreme Court has in a recent series of cases (i.e. the combined effect of Bilski, Prometheus, Myriad and Alice) barred the patent eligibility for many genetic inventions as “products and processes of nature”. In Sequenom the CAFC interpreted these to mean – in essence- that “laws of nature” had to be entirely eliminated from the test of patent eligibility under §101 of the Patent laws. Should this interpretation be institutionalized it will contravene the tests for exclusions and exceptions under the EPC, arguably contradict longstanding US treaty policy and disrupt international patent harmonization. More importantly, we fear that the broader impact of such an restrictive interpretation may have grave consequences for a sustainable global drug delivery system, which should involve both public and private actors.
Although we believe that patents will remain the backbone of the industry, we acknowledge in our brief that there are certain areas of biomedical innovations, such as antibiotics and orphan drugs, where the patent system does not work particularly well. We further recognize that both in Europe and in the US concerns have been raised about overly pre-emptive patents scope, but these are addressed at different levels. In contrast to Europe, the CAFC has interpreted the uncodified exception as part of a “threshold test” for patent-eligibility applied before other patentability requirements can be assessed. A strict and coherent application of these requirements, however, would invalidate overly-broad patent claims (including some of Sequenom’s arguably too broad and badly drafted claims), while also permitting, well-defined, narrower claims on diagnostic technology. In our view, the current approach conflates the patent eligibility test with issues that can be more sensibly addressed within a strict and coherent assessment of novelty, non-obviousness and sufficient disclosure criteria or at the post-grant level. We believe that, the Federal Circuit’s threshold test has not sufficiently considered the manner in which today’s statutory requirements have developed in both the U.S. and Europe to address policy rationales for patentability exceptions. To entirely transplant those issues into the patent eligibility assessment would categorically close the patentability door on many well-defined and beneficial inventions that deserve patent protection. In absence of sufficient public involvement and appropriate alternative incentives we risk that the wells driving technological progress run dry and that companies engage in business strategies, such as increased reliance on trade secrecy, that are not necessarily beneficial for our innovation system.
Accordingly, we urge the Supreme Court to clarify a patent eligibility test in line with its longstanding jurisprudence and in harmony with international and European law.
If the CAFC’s restrictive interpretation should prevail, however, I believe that it will be crucial to swiftly optimize the framework for PPPs and alternative innovation incentives, such as prizes and regulatory exclusivities. This would have to be done on an international level to allow for greater flexibilities and encompass further technological areas, such as biomedical diagnostics. Regarding regulatory exclusivities, Article 39 of the TRIPS agreement should provide sufficient leeway for such changes. The pros and cons of the different alternative approaches would of course have to be carefully considered.
The Amici curiae have no stake in the parties or in the outcome of the case. A full list of the Amici is appended at the end of the brief.