Concept illustration of DNA and genes.

The Civil Rights Challenge to Gene Patenting

By Jorge L. Contreras

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched a unique lawsuit against Myriad Genetics, challenging fifteen claims of seven patents covering various aspects of the BRCA1/2 genes and their use in diagnosing risk for breast and ovarian cancer. In mounting this case, the ACLU assembled a coalition of lawyers, scientists, counselors, patients and advocates in an unprecedented challenge not only to one company’s patents, but the entire practice of gene patenting in America. And, against the odds, they won. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics that naturally occurring DNA sequences are not patentable, a ruling that has had repercussions throughout the scientific community and the biotechnology industry.

In The Genome Defense: Inside the Epic Legal Battle to Determine Who Owns Your DNA (New York: Hachette/Algonquin, 2021), I describe the long road that led to this unlikely Supreme Court victory. It began in 2003 when the ACLU hired its first science advisor, a Berkeley-based cellist and non-profit organizer named Tania Simoncelli. At the ACLU, Simoncelli’s job was to identify science-related issues that the ACLU could do something about, from DNA fingerprinting to functional MRI brain imaging. A couple of years into the role, Simoncelli mentioned gene patenting to Chris Hansen, a veteran ACLU litigator who had been involved in cases covering mental health to school desegregation to online porn. At first, Hansen didn’t believe her. How could a company patent something inside the human body? But Simoncelli persisted, showing him articles and statistics demonstrating that, by 2005, more than 20% of the human genome was covered by patents. The realization led to Hansen’s oft-quoted exclamation, “Who can we sue?”

Read More

Photo of person with gloved hand holding flask at lab bench.

US Support for a WTO Waiver of COVID-19 Intellectual Property – What Does it Mean?

By Jorge L. Contreras

On May 5, 2021, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced that the U.S. would support a “waiver of IP protections on COVID-19 vaccines to help end the pandemic” currently being discussed at the World Trade Organization (WTO). This announcement, representing a reversal of longstanding U.S. policy toward intellectual property, came as a welcome surprise to much of the world, but elicited strong negative responses from the pharmaceutical industry as stock prices of leading vaccine producers sank.

In the short time since the announcement was made, there has been a fair amount of speculation, hyperbole, and misinformation on the topic. In this post, I offer an explanation of what just happened, and my guess as to what its likely effects will be, bearing in mind that the situation is fast-moving and somewhat unpredictable.

Read More

Person typing on computer.

Online Terms of Use for Genealogy Websites – What’s in the Fine Print?

By Jorge L. Contreras

Since genealogy websites first went online, researchers have been using the data that they contain in large-scale epidemiological and population health studies. In many cases, data is collected using automated tools and analyzed using sophisticated algorithms.

These techniques have supported a growing number of discoveries and scientific papers. For example, researchers have used this data to identify genetic markers for Alzheimer’s Disease, to trace an inherited cancer syndrome back to a single German couple born in the 1700s, and to gain a better understanding of longevity and family dispersion.  In the last of these studies, researchers analyzed family trees from 86 million individual genealogy website profiles.

Despite the scientific value of publicly-available genealogy website information, and its free accessibility via the Internet, it is not always the case that this data can be used for research without the permission of the site operator or the individual data subjects.

In fact, the online terms of use (TOU) for genealogy websites may restrict or prohibit the types of uses for data found on those sites.

Read More

Researcher works at a lab bench

Deconstructing Moderna’s COVID-19 Patent Pledge

By Jorge L. Contreras, JD

On October 8, Cambridge-based biotech company Moderna, Inc., a leading contender in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, publicly pledged not to enforce its COVID-19 related patents against “those making vaccines intended to combat the pandemic.”

It also expressed willingness to license its intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines to others after the pandemic. In making this pledge, Moderna refers to its “special obligation under the current circumstances to use our resources to bring this pandemic to an end as quickly as possible.”

Moderna holds seven issued U.S. patents covering aspects of an mRNA-based candidate vaccine directed to COVID-19 which entered Phase III clinical trials in July. The potential market for a COVID-19 vaccine is potentially enormous. As of this writing, the U.S. government has committed approximately $1.5 billion to acquire 100 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine if it proves to be safe and effective (with an option for 100 million more), and the Canadian government has agreed to purchase 20 million doses for an undisclosed amount.

In the high-stakes market for COVID-19 vaccines, it is worth considering the full range of factors that might motivate a private firm to relinquish valuable intellectual property rights for the public good. A better understanding of these factors could help policymakers to secure additional pledges from firms that have not yet volunteered their intellectual property in the fight against the pandemic.

Read More

a stethoscope tied around a dollar bill, with a bottle of pills nearby

What Ever Happened to NIH’s “Fair Pricing” Clause?

By Jorge L. Contreras

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, calls have been made for “fair” and “reasonable” pricing of the vaccines and therapeutics that will eventually be approved to address the virus. A range of proposals in this regard have been made by members of Congress, the Trump Administration, various states, academics and civil society.

Amid this current debate, it is worth remembering the brief period from 1989 to 1995 when the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) did impose reasonable pricing constraints on drugs that were developed as part of cooperative R&D agreements (“CRADAs”) between federal agencies and private industry.

Read More

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office building

Patent Fakes: How Fraudulent Inventions Threaten Public Health, Innovation, and the Economy

By Jorge L. Contreras, JD

The U.S. patent system gives inventors a 20-year exclusive right to their inventions to incentivize the creation of new technologies.

But what if you have a great idea for a new technology, but never actually create it, test it, or determine that it works? Is that patentable? Conversely, should the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) grant patents covering imaginary, fraudulent and otherwise non-existent inventions? Probably not, but it happens with alarming frequency, and it is causing serious problems.

Read More