Supreme Court patent case could affect medical research

Justices will decide whether certain methods are patentable. The ruling may influence process patents in biomedicine and technology.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted Aug. 25, 2009

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A case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court has some medical and biotechnology groups concerned that the decision could close the door on medical innovations.

Justices will decide in Bilski v. Doll whether certain business methods are patentable. An energy company CEO had sued the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office after it denied a patent on certain commodities trading techniques. The court's ruling is expected to influence process patents in various fields, including technology, business and biomedicine.

Federal law generally bars the patentability of laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas. The Supreme Court case stems from a 2008 Federal Circuit Court of Appeals decision that narrowed the standards for patenting a common principle that is transformed into a novel development.

If they stand, the limitations "could jeopardize already-issued biotechnology claims and will create uncertainty surrounding future grants" of patents on biologic, diagnostic and genetic testing methods, Biotechnology Industry Organization General Counsel Tom DiLenge said. The trade group filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court in August.

The standards also could deter the financial investment needed to encourage new medical research and development, according to the Advanced Medical Technology Assn., a trade association of medical equipment manufacturers that joined the brief.

The organizations are asking the high court to overturn the appeals court ruling in favor of a more flexible patentability standard previously enforced. As of this article's deadline, oral arguments in Bilski had not been scheduled.

Patent issues have split the medical community in the past.

While not directly involved in Bilski, some medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, have argued in prior patent cases that broadening certain patentability standards could stymie medical research. Some physicians say that discoveries involving basic scientific principles are not meant to be monopolized, but shared to promote medical advances and cost-effective care.

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