Friday afternoon, August 9, 2013, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the appellate court for all patent cases, reversed an important patent decision by Judge Susan Y. Illston of the Northern District of California. The four companies that offer non-invasive prenatal genetic diagnosis in the United States (Sequenom, Ariosa, Verinata, and Natera) are all suing each other in that district court for patent infringement. Judge Illston had denied Sequnom’s motion for a preliminary injunction, which would have prevented Ariosa from offering its service in the U.S. at least until the case was finally resolved at trial or by settlement. She did so for a variety of reasons, including some that boded extremely poorly for Sequenom’s chances of succeeding on the merits.
The CAFC has now reversed, in a unanimous opinion written by Judge Rader and joined by Judges Dyk and Reyna. (You can download that opinion here.) They vacated the lower court’s decision and remanded it for Judge Illston to “try again.” They did NOT order that issue a preliminary injunction, let alone issue one themselves. They did “correct her” about almost every reason she gave for denying the preliminary injunction. Although there are still a few arguments open to Ariosa (and Judge Illston), the chances that Sequenom will be granted a preliminary injunction just got a lot greater.
The court first disagreed with the way Judge Illston had construed Sequenom’s patent claims. This is important because the way she construed them, Sequenom’s chances of success on the merits were small. They aren’t now. The court said “Even under the ostensibly more relaxed standard, the district court erred in its claim construction. As a consequence, the district court erred in finding a substantial question of noninfringement.”
The claim had talked about paternally inherited DNA, when the actual method looks at DNA inherited from both parents. The lower court said the claim was limited to things that only found DNA known in advance to be paternally inherited – i.e., to a method that would only “read” the paternal DNA. The CAFC disagreed.
“Properly understood, this sentence describes the method of isolating and identifying any paternal characteristics by comparison to maternal characteristics, hardly a limitation to only paternal characteristics known in advance.”
The lower court read the claim’s discussion of “amplifying” as referring to amplifying only paternally inherited DNA. The CAFC again said the lower court was just plain wrong.
Although Judge Illston concluded that Sequenom did not have a high likelihood of prevailing on the merits, she went ahead to analyze the other factors involved in granting a preliminary injunction as if it did have such a high likelihood. She concluded, on several points, that the equities even then would favor NOT granting the injunction. The CAFC disagreed on every, or just about every, point.
Although I am not and do not claim to be a patent lawyer, and I suspect I am missing something, As far as I can tell, the CAFC left only one obvious and substantial issue on which Sequenom could lose: the question of patent-eligible subject matter under Section 101. This is the issue the Supreme Court has recently ruled on, in the Myriad case most recently as to “products of nature” and in the Mayo v. Prometheus case a few years ago as to “laws of nature.”
“The district court also found there was a substantial question over whether the subject matter of the asserted claims was to eligible subject matter. J.A. 16-19. Since the district court’s decision, the Supreme Court decided Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 2107 (2013) (Myriad), which held that product claims directed to isolated DNA segments were not eligible subject matter, but that product claims directed to synthetic cDNA were patent eligible. See id. at 2119-20. Because the district court did not have the benefit of Myriad and also in light of this court’s disagreement with the district court’s claim construction, this court remands for the district court to examine subject matter eligibility in the first instance.”
‘To be clear, this court offers no opinion as to whether there is or is not a substantial question regarding the subject matter eligibility of the asserted claims.”
Do Sequenom’s claims involve products or laws of nature? Beats me, in part because I haven’t read the claims themselves and in part because I have very little idea of what the Supreme Court means by either phrase.
So, what does this mean?
Well, for starters, I think they are dancing in the streets in San Diego at Sequenom’s headquarters. Good news for them. But what about for everyone else?
It’s clearly not good news for Ariosa, Natera, and Verinata, though just how bad it is won’t be clear The companies all use somewhat different technologies and all have their own patents, which they say Sequenom is infringing. It is way too early to know whether even if an injunction issues against Ariosa (which it may not), the same thing would happen to Natera or Verinata. And, of course, there are other firms providing the service in other countries who might enter the US market – I have no idea what their patent situation is. Plus there are companies trying to enter the field that use entirely different methods – CellScape, for example, is not trying to read cell free fetal DNA but to isolate whole, intact fetal cells.
As I said earlier, I am not a patent lawyer. Apart from the (admittedly important) issue of the patent infringement, as a matter of policy I would prefer a situation without an effective patent monopoly. If Sequenom, or anyone else, has a patent-enforced monopoly on providing NIPT in the US, the technology will be more expensive, will expand more slowly, will improve more slowly, and will help fewer women than if there is effective competition. So I’m rooting against Sequenom on this one, as a matter of policy, though I don’t know enough to have a good opinion on the proper outcome as a matter of law.
For the last time in this post, I’ll repeat that I am not a patent lawyer. I hope some of my readers are. What do you think about this decision?