The Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia has now confirmed that a non-invasive diagnostic test for prenatal conditions is patentable subject matter in Australia.
The decision in Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc v Sequenom, Inc  FCAFC 101 contains useful guidance for industry and is significant in that it diverges from the result before the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal) where the majority found the counterpart US patent to be ineligible for patent protection.
Sequenom surprisingly found cell free foetal DNA (cffDNA) in the blood plasma and serum of pregnant women. This discovery allowed: (a) genomic testing of a foetus without invasive testing such as inserting a needle through a mother’s abdomen or cervix (which increases the risk of miscarriage); and (b) more reliable quantitative or qualitative diagnostic testing of a foetus (improving existing methods that may give significant false positive or negative rates). On the basis of this discovery, Sequenom obtained grant of Australian Patent No. 727919 (the Patent) with claim 1 in the following terms:
“A detection method performed on a maternal serum or plasma sample from a pregnant female, which method comprises detecting the presence of a nucleic acid of foetal origin in the sample.”
Ariosa conducts a non-invasive prenatal test that analyses cell free DNA in plasma of pregnant women, to estimate the risks of foetus genetic disorders (Harmony Test). Ariosa licensed Sonic Health Ltd and Clinical Laboratories Pty Ltd to conduct the Harmony Test in Australia. Sequenom claimed this infringed it’s Patent. Arisoa cross-claimed that Sequenom’s Patent was invalid on various grounds.
Manner of Manufacture (the Australian term for “patentable subject matter”)
As part of its challenge to the validity of the Patent on the ground of lack of patentable subject matter, Ariosa submitted that:
- Each claim of the Patent involves the detection of what is naturally occurring; being a mere discovery of a law of nature.
- The leading authority of the High Court of Australia, D’Arcy v Myriad Genetics Inc  HCA 35 (Myriad), required the Full Court to look at the “end result” of each claim to see if there was an artificial effect and that the end result of each claim of Sequenom’s Patent was mere information.
- No claim in Sequenom’s Patent was for a new method of detection (e.g. the ccfDNA was detected and extracted using well known methods) or a new method of applying the detection of ccfDNA in maternal plasma or serum (e.g. methods to analyse the ccfDNA such as genetic disorder markers, PCR, gel electrophoresis and fluorescent labelling techniques were well known).
The only new subject matter was that ccfDNA is detectable in maternal serum or plasma samples – maternal plasma was routinely thrown away by investigators researching non-invasive prenatal diagnosis. Arisoa submitted that “detection” of the ccfDNA is no different from the discovery that cffDNA is detectable.
The tension between mere discovery vs. invention
The Full Court referred to previous judicial considerations about the difficulties finding the line between discovery and invention. The Full Court distilled three points of emphasis from the relevant authorities (at ) which can be summarised as follows:
First, the distinction between mere discovery and an invention lies in its practical application to a useful end.
Second, it is important that the invention is considered as a unitary concept, and not segregated into parts. The invention may still be patentable if the combined effect of an idea and its application in a well-known way is patentable subject matter.
Third, a patentable invention can be an abstract idea put to a useful end (even if the way of putting it to that useful end is obvious or well known).
In Myriad, the High Court of Australia held that naturally-occurring DNA sequences, even when extracted from the native cell nucleus and isolated by human involvement, cannot be validly made the subject of patent protection in Australia (see our analysis here). In this decision, the Full Court considered that Myriad could be distinguished on the basis that the disputed patent claims in that case were directed to a product (the isolated BRCA1 gene sequences).
The Full Court cited Gordon J’s comments in Myriad (at ):
“In my opinion, invention may lie in the idea, and it may lie in the way in which it is carried out, and it may lie in the combination of the two; but if there is invention in the idea plus the way of carrying it out, then it is good subject-matter for Letters Patent."
Gordon J’s reasoning in Myriad distinguished the invalidity of claims to the isolated BRACA1 sequence themselves, and the validity of claims (such as claim 4 of the patent in Myriad) directed to a method of using specific mutations or polymorphisms to suggest a predisposition to breast cancer and ovarian cancer. In Myriad, it was not disputed that if the BRCA1 gene was isolated and found to have specified mutations which indicated malignancies, then that was patentable subject matter.
Claim 1 in Sequenom’s Patent was directed to a method involving the application of a means for identifying and discerning between maternal and foetal nucleic acid. Not unlike claim 4 in Myriad, Seqeunom’s Patent claimed a process used to convey some useful information, the Full Court holding (at ):
“Here, the invention as claimed carries into effect an idea that the presence of information within the naturally occurring code of a person will be useful. By a process of detection that information is yielded up. The claim construed as a whole necessarily involves an artificially created state of affairs yielding an outcome that is of economic utility.”
The correct identification of the invention
Ultimately the Full Court considered that (at ):
“[The invention] lies not in the mere observation that cffDNA is to be found in maternal plasma (or serum), but in the explanation as to how that knowledge may be unlocked for others to use it (that is, the explanation of how to extract the cffDNA from the plasma or serum). It is the idea coupled with a practical means of application that makes the invention."
The invention was not, as Arisoa sought to characterise it, the mere observation of cffDNA in maternal plasma or serum. The invention ‘unlocked’ that knowledge for others to use; it was a new means by which foetal DNA may be detected, other than by dangerous invasive techniques, or using methods with poor diagnostic capability.
Before Ariosa’s Australian licensees, Sonic and Clinical Laboratories, started conducting the Harmony Test in Australia, they would collect blood samples from pregnant women in Australia, and send them to Ariosa in the United States. Ariosa them conducted the Harmony Test and sent written test result reports back to Sonic/Clinical in Australia.
A question for the Full Court was whether this ‘send out’ model infringed Sequenom’s exclusive rights to ‘exploit’ the invention claimed in the Patent. Were the test results mere information, or a ‘product’ within the definition of ‘exploit’? The invention in Sequenom’s Patent was a ‘method’ or ‘process’, and ‘exploit’ for the purposes of the Act includes ‘doing any act […] in respect of a product resulting from [using the method or process]’. The Full Court rejected the primary judge’s characterisation that the reports were ‘products resulting from such use’ captured by the meaning of ‘exploit’.
It was not necessary for a method or process to result in a product, provided it can be commercially exploited (at  and ):
“In our view, a construction of the word “product” in the context of the definition of “exploit” which recognises that not all methods or processes will led [sic] to a product resulting from their use is to be preferred.”
“The fact that such information is derived from a patentable process or method cannot render the information itself patentable.”
So Sonic and Clinical did not infringe Seqeunom’s Patent by sending specimens to Ariosa in the United States for the purposes of the undertaking the Harmony Test in that jurisdiction. Sonic and Clinical did, however, infringe Seqeunom’s Patent when they undertook the Harmony Test in Australia.
Key take aways from this decision include:
- Diagnostic methods remain patent-eligible in Australia and this decision highlights the distinction between the treatment of method and product patent claims in Australia.
- ‘Discoveries’ of nature may be patentable in Australia, if the patent claims a process or method that uses that discovery in some new and commercially valuable way (even if the techniques involved are not themselves new or non-obvious). In other words, the combination of an ‘unknown idea’ and ‘known practical application of the idea’ can be patentable.
- Where an Australian patent claims a diagnostic method, it is possible that third parties could subject test samples taken from Australian patients to the patented diagnostic method in jurisdictions where there is no patent protection, and then deliver the results to Australian patients without infringing the Australian patent.
It is still possible for Ariosa or even Sequenom to make an application for special leave to appeal the Full Court’s decision to the High Court of Australia. We will keep you updated of any further important developments. If you have any questions about how this case relates to your patent strategy for Australia, please get in touch.