Myriad's Lawyers Want to Patent the Periodic Table

Interesting arguments today before a Federal Appeals Court concerning the "BRCA 1/2" patents.  Recall first that the U.S. Government has filed an amicus brief supporting the trial judge's ruling that naturally-occurring genes cannot be patented (see "Big Gene Patent (Busting) News???" and "Surprise Outbreak of Common Sense in Washington DC").

The Appellate Court is going to decide whether two genes (BRCA 1 and 2), in which mutations are correlated with breast cancer, can be patented.  Myriad Genetics and its lawyers say yes, the ACLU and several groups representing patients, scientists, and clinicians say no.  So did the trial judge.  The basic argument is about whether a naturally-occurring gene sequence that is used in a diagnostic test can be considered an invention.

Nature's The Great Beyond blog has a bit of reporting from yesterday's proceedings.  There is a passage from the blog post I think is worth exploring a bit further for the way the litigants and the judges are talking about the nature of DNA and the nature of elements such as lithium:

Both the lawyers and the judges repeatedly compared the case to efforts to extract a valuable mineral from the ground.

"Why isn't the ingenuity [that justifies patentability] the process of extracting [the mineral]" rather than in the mineral itself, [Judge Kimberly Moore] asked [defendent's attorney Greg] Castanias. "God made it. Man didn't make it."

Castanias retorted: "What we have here are new tools [that are] the products of molecular biologists. They are not the products of nature. They are not the products of God."

If that's the case, [Judge William Bryson] pushed Castanias, are you saying that isolation of pure lithium is properly an invention?

"Yes," the lawyer replied.

That is extraordinary.  Castanias' assertion is contrary to more than a century of U.S. case law and administrative rulings by the USPTO.  Products of nature are explicitly excluded in laws, rulings, and administrative decisions from coverage by patents.  Castanias wants the Appellate Court to rule that the elements in the periodic table, along with any other naturally-occurring substance, are in fact patentable.

The mind boggles.  Following Castanias' reasoning pure oxygen, pure water, and pure gold could all be patented because some process was employed for purification.  If this sort of argument held sway, you could even patent the moon because you require a human invention to go visit and nab a piece of it.  Yes, yes, I know that other inconvenient case law would get in the way of patenting a celestial body, which really doesn't make any sense anyway.  But that is the point.  The trial judge in this case was actually the first to issue a ruling that patents on naturally-occurring genetic sequences are prohibited by law (see "Big Gene Patent (Busting) News???").

This argument revolves in part around the nature of DNA.  Here is another excerpt from the Nature blog post:

Chris Hansen, a staff attorney with the ACLU, told the judges: "Myriad's entire business is built on the proposal that isolated DNA and [naturally occurring] DNA are identical." They don't write to patients with their test results, saying: "You've got a mutation in your isolated DNA but I have no idea what's going on in your body," he said.

Judge William Bryson countered that the act of isolating DNA involves breaking covalent bonds, thus creating a product that does not exist in nature.

"With respect, your honor, I think not," Hansen replied. "DNA is DNA."

But Greg Castanias, a lawyer with the Jones Day firm in Washington DC who represented the defendants, begged to differ. "Isolated DNA does not exist in nature," and wouldn't exist at all without human ingenuity, he said. The entire biotechnology industry, he added, is built on interpreting existing law to say that DNA isolation is sufficient to show the human invention that is required for a patent.

I found the language quoted to be quite interesting.  The notion that "isolated DNA does not exist in nature" is based on the defendants' definition of "isolated DNA".  Judge Sweet spent three pages of his original decision dealing with Myriad's assertions about "isolated DNA", but it is hard to know from the Nature blog post whether this was part of yesterday's conversation.  Here is Judge Sweet's definition (p. 92 of his decision): "Isolated DNA is therefore construed to refer to a segment of DNA nucleotides existing separate from other cellular components normally associated with native DNA, including proteins and other DNA sequences comprising the remainder of the genome, and includes both DNA originating from a cell as well as DNA synthesized through chemical or heterologous biological means".

This is quite close to Myriad's definition of "isolated DNA", but Judge Sweet still found that because the isolated DNA is the same sequence, and therefore conveys the same information, as the sequence in vivo, it cannot be patented because it is a product of nature.

Incidentally, the definition of isolated DNA given above appears to include DNA that is free in the environment.  Free DNA is found in marine and terrestrial environments.  That DNA can be taken up by other organisms via horizontal gene transfer, which means that free DNA is perfectly funtional.  Here, for example, is an interesting little study looking at the uptake of free DNA by aquatic bacteria.

The point being that humans did not invent DNA that is "separate from other cellular components".  Humans may have invented processes to concentrate and purify DNA, or to extract DNA from complex structures, but that does not mean that isolated DNA is itself a human invention.