On April 17, 2019, several lawmakers from the Senate and House of Representatives released a bipartisan, bicameral framework for statutory reform of 35 U.S.C. § 101. The framework was released about two months after the revival of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property. For the past several years, innovators, the Patent Office, and even judges on the Federal Circuit have raised concerns that Section 101 has become a runaway law for invalidating patents that reflect genuine advances in science and technology. The revival of the Senate subcommittee and the release of this framework indicate that Capitol Hill has heard, and is moving towards a response to, these concerns.
On February 6, 2019, the Federal Circuit issued its latest opinion on patentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101 in Athena Diagnostics, Inc. v. Mayo Collaborative Servs., LLC, No. 2017-2508, slip. Op. (Fed. Cir. Feb. 6, 2019). Judge Lourie wrote for the majority in this split decision, expressing some regret but affirming an order invalidating a diagnostic patent involving proteins. Judge Newman dissented, voicing a concern that § 101 jurisprudence has become counterproductive to the goals of patent law. Though unsurprising, the decision further narrows an already shrinking space for patents to diagnostic methods. It is unclear from this decision what diagnostic methods, if any, are safe from future § 101 challenges.
On January 7, 2019, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) published new guidance for patent examiners intended to address concerns expressed by Federal Circuit judges, industry stakeholders, and others about the perceived lack of predictability and clarity in determining subject matter eligibility under 35 U.S.C. § 101. See 2019 Revised Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance, 84 Fed. Reg. 50 (Jan. 7, 2019). The guidance, which is intended for use by USPTO personnel in evaluating subject matter eligibility, “revises the procedures for determining whether a patent claim or patent application claim is directed to a judicial exception (laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas).” Id. This new guidance represents an attempt by the USPTO to address “the legal uncertainty surrounding Section 101,” recognizing that “[m]any stakeholders, judges, inventors, and practitioners across the spectrum have argued that something needs to be done to increase clarity and consistency in how Section 101 is currently applied.” Id.
Two cases decided by the Federal Circuit in 2018, Aatrix Software, Inc. v. Green Shades Software, Inc., 882 F.3d 1121, en banc rehearing denied, 890 F.3d 1354 and Berkheimer v. HP Inc., 881 F.3d 1360, en banc rehearing denied, 890 F.3d 1369, address what qualifies as patent-eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101 and how courts should resolve that question. These cases expose divisions within the court on § 101 issues, however, and leave uncertainty in their wake. Many stakeholders, including judges, are therefore calling for guidance from the Supreme Court as to how to resolve such issues or seeking the aid of Congress.
In Rapid Litig. Mgmt. Ltd v. CellzDirect, Inc., the Federal Circuit reversed a ruling of patent invalidity under Section 101, reviving a biotech patent to a method of preserving hepatocytes, liver cells, for medical use. The Federal Circuit reversed the district court at both steps of the Supreme Court’s framework for patent eligibility set out in Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012). In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent denial of certiorari in Sequenom Inc., v. Ariosa Inc., where Sequenom sought guidance on the proper application of the Mayo two-step test, the Federal Circuit’s decision provides important guidance for how to determine patent eligibility for biotech inventions that build on natural discoveries. It also may help stem what many, including several Federal Circuit judges, have described as a crisis in medical innovation due to how courts and the Patent Office have applied Mayo.
Supreme Court Denies Sequenom’s Cert Petition, Leaving the Federal Circuit’s Interpretation of the Mayo/Alice Patent Eligibility Framework Intact For Now
The Supreme Court today denied Sequenom Inc.’s petition for writ of certiorari, in which Sequenom asked the Court to review a decision of the Federal Circuit invalidating its patent on a breakthrough prenatal diagnostic procedure. In denying the petition, the Court has declined to revisit the patent eligibility framework it set out in Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs. Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012) and reaffirmed in Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank International, 134 S. Ct. 2347 (2014).
Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc., Natera, Inc., and DNA Diagnostics Center, Inc. have filed briefs in opposition to Sequenom’s petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court for review of the Federal Circuit’s decision holding Sequenom’s fetal DNA diagnostic patent ineligible under Section 101 and the test set out in Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs. Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012).
The biotechnology and life sciences industry has voiced strong support for Sequenom’s recent request that the Supreme Court review the Federal Circuit’s decision holding that Sequenom’s patent on prenatal diagnosis using fetal DNA was invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101 for claiming ineligible natural phenomena. Twenty-two amici have filed briefs in support of Sequenom’s petition, representing a diverse contingent of stakeholders: biotech and life science companies, innovators in other technological fields, academics, international and domestic professional organizations, and IP licensors. Many elaborate on the arguments raised by Sequenom in its petition, including the potential for a Mayo-induced “crisis of patent law and medical innovation.”
On March 21, 2015, Sequenom filed a petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court in Sequenom, Inc. v. Ariosa Diagnostics, et al. (No. 15-1182). Sequenom seeks Supreme Court review of a Federal Circuit decision holding Sequenom’s patent on a breakthrough non-invasive fetal DNA diagnostic method invalid as directed at patent-ineligible natural phenomena. In its petition, Sequenom calls its case the “ideal vehicle” for the Supreme Court to address mounting concern – acknowledged by the Federal Circuit below – that Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs. Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012), has been interpreted too broadly, rendering otherwise meritorious inventions patent ineligible. Sequenom argues that the Federal Circuit’s interpretation of Mayo is incorrect and would have sweeping and devastating effects on innovation in biotechnology.
In Ariosa Diagnostics Inc. v. Sequenom Inc., 788 F.3d 1371 (Fed. Cir. 2015), a Federal Circuit panel held that Sequenom Inc.’s noninvasive prenatal diagnosis patent claims patent ineligible subject matter under the two-step test of Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012). Sequenom petitioned the court for rehearing en banc, arguing that the panel failed to consider the claimed method as a whole and that its analysis was therefore contrary to Supreme Court precedent. Sequenom’s petition received strong support from amici from numerous organizations, companies and academic groups. There were 12 amicus briefs in total, raising a variety of additional arguments in support of en banc review. On September 3, 2015, the court invited appellees to file a response to the petition for rehearing en banc.
The Federal Circuit recently handed down a long-awaited Section 101 decision, one with potentially far-reaching consequences for biotech diagnostic patents. In Ariosa Diagnostics Inc. v. Sequenom Inc., No. 14-1139 (Fed. Cir. June 12, 2015), the Federal Circuit, applying the U.S. Supreme Court’s test for patent eligibility set out in Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs. Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012), invalidated Sequenom’s breakthrough patent on noninvasive prenatal diagnosis through the amplification and detection of paternally inherited cell-free fetal DNA (“cffDNA”) in the blood of pregnant women. According to the court, “even such valuable contributions can fall short of statutory subject matter” under the test set out in Mayo. In addition to its implications for other biotech patents and investment in diagnostics, the Federal Circuit’s decision illustrates the potentially unintended consequences of Mayo and the need for a legislative solution so that breakthrough manmade inventions remain patent-eligible.
In a recent case, the Federal Circuit held that short synthetically created DNAs are not patentable after the Supreme Court’s decision in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad.