In one sense, the case has the potential to be as significant as Diamond v. Chakrabarty. That is the 1980 Supreme Court decision that (to quote a 2005 review) “held that a live, man-made microorganism is patentable subject matter” under the patent code.
There is more than a little posturing on both sides. The patients’ rights, open IP crowd is promulgating op-eds in the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times asserting that no company “should own our DNA”. Not surprisingly, the news pages of the New York Times are promoting sympathetic stories on the anti-IP crowd.
In response, the CEO of Myriad Genetics submitted an op-ed to Forbes and letters hoping to rebut these op-eds. The argument is summed up by the title of the Forbes piece: “We're Not Patenting Your Genes, But Our Research.”
We used the HBS case on Myriad in my Innovation Management class at KGI this semester. The students really enjoyed it. It provided very interesting discussion questions at the intersection of genomic medicine, patent law and public policy. It didn’t hurt that this is a high-profile unsettled question of the law.
For the legal issues, a great place to start is the PatentlyO blog. For example, a December 3 article listed the conventional wisdom among legal scholars. A February 11 article lists the questions to be addressed by the two parties:
- Are human genes patentable?
- Did the court of appeals err in upholding a method claim by Myriad that is irreconcilable with this Court's ruling in Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012)?
- Did the court of appeals err in adopting a new and inflexible rule, contrary to normal standing rules and this Court's decision in MedImmune, Inc. v. Genentech, Inc., 549 U.S. 118 (2007), that petitioners who have been indisputably deterred by Myriad's "active enforcement" of its patent rights nonetheless lack standing to challenge those patents absent evidence that they have been personally threatened with an infringement action?
However, probably the most interesting article was in my Sunday morning paper here in San Diego, by Bradley Fikes, the longtime biotech reporter who’s one of the few North County Times reporters after it was acquired last year by the San Diego Union. His lead on the Union story captures it all:
No matter which way the Supreme Court rules on the Myriad Genetics BRCA breast cancer gene test patenting case, the importance of such patents is diminishing over time. Biotechnology is moving beyond patents derived from naturally occurring gene sequences. The most important biotech patents nowadays are becoming synthetic gene and RNA sequences, proteins and other indisputable contrivances of human ingenuity.The article highlights the important pioneering efforts of Craig Venter (now in San Diego) who competed with the Human Gene Project.
In the long run, will Myriad matter? The experts consulted by Fikes think not, for two reasons. First, the relevant patents are expiring and thus at some point won’t be enforced anyway. Second, the IP strategies of biotech companies are getting more sophisticated, emphasizing synthetic organisms rather than isolated DNA strains from natural organisms. Meanwhile, as the New York Times reports, Myriad’s latest business model is using trade secrets for its database.
So in the end, this may be tempest in a teapot. In a decade or two, the industry will have moved on, and the patent lawyers will need something else to debate.