BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 29, 2019: NIH NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH sign emblem seal on gateway center entrance building at NIH campus. The NIH is the US's medical research agency.

Will NIH Learn from Myriad when Settling Its mRNA Inventorship Dispute with Moderna?

By Jorge L. Contreras

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is currently embroiled in a dispute over the ownership of patent rights to Moderna’s flagship mRNA COVID-19 vaccine (mRNA-1273).

The NIH, which funded much of Moderna’s research on the COVID-19 vaccine, should be assertive in exerting control over the results of this taxpayer-funded research. Failing to do so would be a missed opportunity for the public sector to have a say in the distribution and pricing of this critical medical technology.

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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?”

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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.

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Contracting to counter gene patents – a 21st Century solution to access and innovation

By Sarah Ali-Khan and E. Richard Gold

As Precision Medicine becomes a reality, molecular tests are an increasingly critical part of patient care. While patients and their physicians would like to maximize access, they have confronted a roadblock in the form of patents covering genes and methods of diagnosis. Many hoped that the landmark 2013 Supreme Court of the United States decision in Myriad v AMP spelled the end of these patents, but the number of gene patents has actually increased since that decision. This is because, while limiting the availability of patents over genomic DNA, the court decision was narrow, leaving substantial grey zones such as over cDNA or where the patent covers a sequence of DNA used in a particular way. Patent agents have been assiduous in exploiting these grey zones to file for and obtain patents over molecular tests. This development points to continued adverse consequences of gene patents not only in the US, but around the world. Our recently published GIM article Gene patents still alive and kicking: their impact on provision of genetic testing for Long QT syndrome in the Canadian public health-care system’, not only examines the impact of gene patents in one country, Canada, but shows how 21st Century contracting can provide a nuanced and pragmatic means to enabling both access and innovation around patented genetic tests.

In Nov 2014, in the first Canadian instance of a public interest ‘test case’ in intellectual property and public health, The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) challenged five patents held by Transgenomic Inc. over a genetic test for Long QT Syndrome (LQTS), a potentially fatal cardiac disorder most commonly striking in children and youth. Widely reported, settled in March 2016, and named as one of the year’s cases having the most impact on intellectual property, the case produced the CHEO Public Health Access Agreement. The Agreement does not itself alter law– gene patents remain valid in Canada. Rather, it constitutes a contractual agreement between parties to the litigation, allowing for efficient, no-cost test implementation. The Agreement explicitly states that Transgenomic will freely grant a license to test the LQTS-associated genes to any entity providing services within Canada’s public healthcare system. That is, except for a marginal private market, all LQTS in Canada can now be provided free. Read More

Art Caplan on the Myriad Decision: Patenting natural DNA never made sense

Bill of Health contributor Art Caplan weighed in on the Supreme Court’s decision in the Myriad case with an opinion piece at NBC:

“The Supreme Court has finally done what should have been done years ago — declared that genes which naturally exist in all of us cannot be patented.  For years Myriad Genetics, the company that sells the genetic tests used by Angelina Jolie and thousands of other women to assess their risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, has held back the development of better tests and access for many women to testing by invoking their patent claims on key genes. Now the Supreme Court has rightly said that kind of patent is not valid.

“Patenting a naturally existing gene never made any sense. Sure, it takes work to figure out what genes do, but the rewards for that are publications, tenure, professional honors and even a Nobel Prize — not a patent. Patents should be given not for discovery, but for inventions: What genes can you change; what test kit can you build; what program can you run to screen genetic risks?

“The implications of the decision could be far broader than Myriad, whose stock price went up after the ruling. Many companies have taken out patents on genes not only those found in humans but in animals, microbes and plants.  All of these are now in question — which may cause some reevaluation of the worth of some companies who have been touting their ownership of genes to Wall Street.”

You can read the full piece here: Patenting natural DNA never made sense.