18 October 2015

Proposed Australian Examination Practice Gives Narrow Interpretation to High Court’s Myriad Ruling

NarrowsIP Australia has opened a consultation on proposed changes in examination practice in light of the High Court’s ruling in D'Arcy v Myriad Genetics Inc [2015] HCA 35.  Although many people had feared (or hoped, depending upon their particular predilections) that the Australian Patent Office would follow the lead of the USPTO, and take a broad view of the High Court’s judgment, it is clear from the proposed examination practice that this will not be the case.

Indeed, it would be difficult for IP Australia to take any narrower view of the implications of the Myriad decision than the one it is proposing (except, perhaps, in relation to cDNA).  The Patent Office accepts that the High Court’s judgment establishes that ‘a claim to an isolated nucleic acid that merely represents information coding for a polypeptide is not patent eligible’, and has therefore concluded that the following are not patent-eligible:
  1. naturally occurring human and non-human nucleic acid sequences encoding polypeptides or functional fragments thereof - either isolated or synthesised;
  2. cDNA; and
  3. naturally occurring human and non-human coding RNA - either isolated or synthesised.
However, the Patent Office proposes that it will continue to treat claims directed to pretty much everything else, not addressed directly by the High Court’s decision, as patent-eligible.  This includes other forms of isolated, naturally-occurring DNA such as regulatory DNA and non-coding DNA.

This is in stark contrast to the USPTO’s response to the corresponding decision of the US Supreme Court in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc, which the US Office treated as affecting the patent-eligibility of all claims directed or relating to natural products.  Initial guidance from the USPTO suggested that this would even include new and useful combinations of natural substances (using gunpowder as an example).  Updated guidance issued in December 2014 improved the situation somewhat, by clarifying the process by which claims ‘directed to’ excluded subject matter should not be subject to rejection if they recite additional elements that amount to ‘significantly more’ than the exclusion.  Even so, it remains clear that a claim which recites ‘nothing more’ than an isolated natural product generally cannot be patented at the USPTO, whereas many such claims will continue to pass muster under the proposed Australian practice.

09 October 2015

Australian High Court Nukes Biotech Industry from Orbit: “It’s the Only Way to be Sure”

Nuclear explosionThe High Court of Australia has followed the US Supreme Court in unanimously declaring that naturally-occurring DNA sequences – even when extracted from the cell nucleus and isolated by human intervention – cannot, in themselves, be validly the subject of patent protection.  In particular, all seven High Court judges found that claims 1-3 of Myriad Genetics’ Australian patent no. 686004, each of which is directed to isolated nucleic acid molecules corresponding with the BRCA mutation associated with increased breast cancer risk, are invalid because they do not define a patent-eligible ‘manner of manufacture’ under Australian law: D'Arcy v Myriad Genetics Inc [2015] HCA 35.

In arriving at this ruling, the High Court has reversed the decisions of six Federal Court judges – one at first instance (Cancer Voices Australia v Myriad Genetics Inc [2013] FCA 65), and five more on appeal to a full bench of the Federal Court (D’Arcy v Myriad Genetics Inc [2014] FCAFC 115) – all of whom found that nucleic acids, once extracted from a cell and isolated from a complete DNA molecule, are artificially-created products that are chemically, structurally and functionally different from their natural counterparts, and thus patent-eligible.

Furthermore, in reversing last year’s decision of the Full Federal Court, the High Court has (retroactively) made a liar of Australia’s Trade Minister, Andrew Robb.  For months, Mr Robb has been telling anyone who will listen that Australia does not need to extend ‘data exclusivity’ for biologic drugs, because this country provides more extensive patent protection for biological materials than some others.  This line has been followed primarily for the benefit of the US negotiators of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), who initially wanted the agreement to mandate a minimum 12 years’ data exclusivity. 

As recently as 6 October 2015, following finalisation of the TPP after seven years of negotiations, Mr Robb was talking up Australia’s patent system as a key factor in reaching agreement on the contentious issue of data exclusivity for biologics.  Yet, the very next day, the High Court dropped its nuclear bombshell on that argument, by not only replicating the action of the US Supreme Court in declaring isolated naturally-occurring DNA to be unpatentable, but going further in extending this to synthesised biologics – including cDNA – that essentially embody the same ‘information’ existing in the naturally-occurring biological molecule.

Just to be clear, nobody – not even Myriad Genetics – cares that three Australian patent claims directed to the isolated DNA comprising the BRCA mutations have specifically been declared invalid.  Quite aside from anything else, the patent has expired, having reached the end of its 20-year term on 11 August 2015.  There are also probably very few people who would be greatly concerned that isolated naturally-occurring DNA sequences are not patentable in Australia.  It is now widely regarded that the completion of the human genome project, along with the relative ease, speed and low-cost of gene sequencing nowadays, has largely rendered such claims unpatentable for lack of novelty or inventive step anyway.

The larger concern with the Australian High Court’s decision for the entire biotechnology industry is likely to be its focus on the information content of the naturally-occurring DNA as ‘an essential element of the invention as claimed’.  This reasoning will create significant uncertainty as to the circumstances under which any product – whether wholly, or partially, synthesised, and including cDNA – which essentially exists to provide a ‘medium’ for naturally-occurring information, may continue to be regarded as patent-eligible in Australia.

05 October 2015

‘Free Software’ Advocates Aside, Submissions to IP Australia Overwhelmingly Support Innovation Patent System

SupportAs I have previously reported, IP Australia has been conducting a consultation process on the posthumous recommendation by the Advisory Council on Intellectual Property (ACIP) that the Australian government consider abolishing the innovation patent system. 

The due date for public feedback on this proposal was 28 September 2015.  The submissions have now been published and, with the exception of a fairly obviously coordinated campaign by a handful of ‘free software’ advocates, a clear majority of stakeholders – including IP lawyers, patent attorneys, inventors, small-to-medium enterprises, and industry groups – have come out in favour of retaining the innovation patent system. 

Most, however, would also support a range of proposed reforms to the system, including raising the ‘innovative step’ standard, introducing a mandatory deadline for requesting substantive examination, and restricting the use of the name ‘patent’ to those rights that have actually been examined and certified.

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