Last week, the US Supreme Court unanimously rejected the patentability of Prometheus’ “diagnostic”, characterising it as an impermissible attempt to patent a law of nature.

Claim 1 of the Patent was:

A method of optimizing therapeutic efficacy for treatment of an immune-mediated gastrointestinal disorder, comprising:

“(a) administering a drug providing 6-thioguanine to a subject having said immune-mediated gastrointestinal disorder; and

“(b) determining the level of 6-thioguanine in said subject having said immune-mediated gastrointestinal disorder,

“wherein the level of 6-thioguanine less than about 230 pmol per 8×108 red blood cells indicates a need to increase the amount of said drug subsequently admin istered to said subject and

“wherein the level of 6-thioguanine greater than about 400 pmol per 8×108 red blood cells indicates a need to decrease the amount of said drug subsequently ad ministered to said subject.”

The Supreme Court characterised that part of the claims dealing with the relationship between concentrations of certain metabolites in the blood with the effectiveness of particular dosages as a law of nature, which was unpatentable. The additional features did not overcome that exclusion as they were in effect already well-known and practised. In his Honour’s overview, Breyer J explained the rationale:

[The cases] warn us against up holding patents that claim processes that too broadly preempt the use of a natural law. Morse, supra, at 112– 120; Benson, supra, at 71–72. And they insist that a process that focuses upon the use of a natural law also contain other elements or a combination of elements, sometimes referred to as an “inventive concept,” sufficient to ensure that the patent in practice amounts to signifi cantly more than a patent upon the natural law itself. ….

We find that the process claims at issue here do not satisfy these conditions. In particular, the steps in the claimed processes (apart from the natural laws them selves) involve well-understood, routine, conventional activity previously engaged in by researchers in the field. At the same time, upholding the patents would risk dis proportionately tying up the use of the underlying nat- ural laws, inhibiting their use in the making of further discoveries.

Patently-O has a more substantive consideration: Natural Process + Known Elements = Normally No Patent. The Commissioner of Patents has issued new guidelines indicating his understanding here; and criticisms have been propounded here and here.

The Supreme Court subsequently remitted the Myriad “gene patent” case to the Federal Circuit and Patently-O thinks their patent is going down too.

Our law is in many respects rather different. Section 18(2) of the Patents Act contains an exclusion from patentability only for human beings and the processes for their generation. Under s 18(1) and (1A), however, a patentable invention must be a “manner of manufacture within the meaning of s 6 of the Statute of Monopolies”.

In the ‘watershed’ NRDC case, the High Court confirmed that a ‘mere’ discovery was not a manner of manufacture, but an application of a discovery in a field of economic endeavour would be. A ‘mere’ discovery being “some piece of abstract information without any suggestion of a practical application of it to a useful end” at [8].

On this approach, Prometheus’ patent appears to have moved beyond the ‘mere discovery’ stage. The question might be, therefore, whether the additional integers were obvious or, may be, we have moved into Microcell territory: nothing but “nothing but a claim for a new use of an old substance” (see NRDC at [7].

A role for that approach was preserved (reinstated?) under the 1990 Act by the High Court in Phillips v Mirabella. Now, given the overlap between the Mirabella court’s analysis and the statutory requirements for novelty and inventive step (or an innovative step), that raises a whole set of issues. First, there is a question whether Mirabella would be decided the same way given the High Court seemed to have cut the legs out from under it in Advanced Building Systems – although, as the Full Federal Court pointed out in BMS v Faulding, Advanced Buidling Systems was decided under the 1952 Act and distinguished Mirabella on the grounds that the 2 Acts were different.

In trying to make sense of that, the Full Court went on to find that the “lack of newness” must be apparent on the face of the specification. As that appears to depend on the text of the specification, the approach taken by the US Supreme Court might not be open: the Faulding court found the dosage type regime a manner of manufacture although, in the end, it failed the novelty test.

In Arrow v Merck, Gyles J struck down a dosage regime on the grounds that it lacked subject matter. On appeal, the Full Court upheld invalidity, but only on grounds of lack of novelty and inventive step. Subsequently, Gyles J also accepted that the lack of subject mater ground could not be made out if it was necessary to resort to extrinsic evidence.

I guess we’ll see where the Myriad litigation in Australia takes us in due course.

Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Labs., Inc. (Supreme Court 2012) (pdf)