House Introduces Patent Reform Proposal to Permit Second Opinions in Genetic Diagnostic Testing

When we last checked in on the state of patent reform back in March, the Senate had just passed the America Invents Act (S.23) or, as it is more commonly known, the Patent Reform Act of 2011 (pdf) by an overwhelming 95-5 vote.

Following its passage in the Senate, the legislation promptly stalled in the House of Representatives and, several months and numerous committee hearings later, that is where it remains. Fierce lobbying and political maneuvering have thrown multiple key provisions of the reform legislation into doubt. Leading areas of debate include the constitutionality of a proposed change from a “first-to-invent” to a “first-to-file” patent system and a provision that would allow the patent office to retain user fees to fund its own operations.

While it remains unclear whether patent reform will actually occur, the latest round of legislative wrangling has introduced one proposal of particular interest to Genomics Law Report readers. Among 86 pages of proposed amendments (pdf) to H.R.1249 (the House version of the patent reform legislation) offered earlier this week is a provision that, if adopted, would provide an infringement safe harbor for second opinion genetic diagnostic testing.

Permitting Second Opinions in Certain Genetic Diagnostic Testing. Introduced as part of the Manager’s Amendment (pdf) submitted by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the proposal is conceptually simple. It would create a new Section 287(d) under the Patent Act to establish a safe harbor for second opinion genetic diagnostic testing providers, much like the safe harbor that already exists at Section 287(c) for medical practitioners’ performance of medical activities.

Under certain conditions (more on those below),  performing a genetic test “solely for the purpose of providing the individual with an independent confirmation of results” previously obtained from a patented diagnostic test would not subject the second opinion test provider to infringement liability under the Patent Act. The safe harbor provision would not actually define second opinion testing as non-infringing behavior—the act of performing the second opinion test could still constitute infringement under Section 271 of the Patent Act—but it would eliminate the normal infringement remedies (Sections 281, 283, 284 and 285) from the patent owner’s arsenal.

The actual legislative proposal, of course, is slightly more complex. Here is the full text:

Sec. 27. PERMITTING SECOND OPINIONS IN CERTAIN GENETIC DIAGNOSTIC TESTING

(a) IN GENERAL. – Section 287 of title 35, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following:

(d)(1) With respect to a genetic diagnostic test provider’s performance of, or offering to perform, a confirming genetic diagnostic test activity that constitutes infringement of a patent under section 271(a) or (b) of this title, the provisions of section 281, 283, 284 and 285 of this title shall not apply against the genetic diagnostic test provider with respect to such confirming genetic diagnostic test activity.

(2) For the purposes of this subsection:

(A) The term “confirming genetic diagnostic test activity” –

(i) means the performance of a patented genetic diagnostic test, by a genetic diagnostic test provider, on an individual solely for the purpose of providing the individual with an independent confirmation of results obtained from another test provider’s prior performance of the test on the individual, where such prior test was performed by, or under license from, the owner of the patent that is infringed by the acts specified in paragraph (1), and where independent confirmation of the prior test is not available from another test provider under a license from the patent owner; but

(ii) does not include –

(I) the performance of a patented genetic diagnostic test on an individual for the purpose of monitoring or reconfirming the individual’s medical or genetic status over time, for therapeutic treatment selection or determining responsiveness to treatment, and for other purposes that require repeated genetic diagnostic testing of the individual;

(II) the use of a patented machine or article of manufacture in violation of such patent;

(III) the use of a patented composition of matter that is commercially available to the genetic diagnostic test provider; and

(IV) the practice of a patented process other than the process of testing claimed in the patent owner’s patent referred to in paragraph (I).

(B) The term “genetic diagnostic test provider” means any person or entity that performs a confirming genetic diagnostic test activity, and includes a clinical laboratory or other health care entity at which, on behalf of which, or in association with which the confirming genetic diagnostic test activity is conducted, such as a nursing home, hospital, university, medical school, health maintenance organization, group medical practice, or medical clinic.

(C) The term “patented genetic diagnostic test” means a patented diagnostic method that is specific to the detection of a mutation or a pattern of mutations of one or more particular genes in an individual, as well as the use of a patented composition of matter, or the practice of a patented use of a composition of matter, where such composition of matter is specific to and necessary for the practice of the diagnostic method and is not commercially available to the genetic diagnostic test provider. When performed in the course of a confirming genetic diagnostic test activity, such term is not limited to the particular embodiments of the patented diagnostic method or composition of matter that were practiced by or under the authority of the patent owner in providing the prior genetic diagnostic test.

(D) The term “independent confirmation” is not limited to the replication of the results of a prior genetic diagnostic test, and includes providing the individual with information that is not otherwise available from the provider of such prior test and that affirms, clarifies, disproves, corroborates, or otherwise aids the individual in interpreting the results of such prior test, including in instance where such results were inconclusive.

(3) The infringer shall have the burden of establishing the limitation on remedies under paragraph (1), including the production of contemporaneous documentary evidence proving, or tending to prove, that the diagnostic test activity meets the definition of a confirming diagnostic test activity under paragraph (2)(A) at the time the confirming diagnostic test activity was performed.

(b) EFFECTIVE DATE. – The amendment made by subsection (a) shall take effect on the date of the enactment of this Act and shall apply to confirming diagnostic test activity performed on or after such date.

A Safe Harbor’s Uncertain Waters. A close examination of the text reveals that, however simple its intent, if passed as drafted the second opinion safe harbor would leave genetic testing developers and providers, patent holders and courts with considerable uncertainty about the safe harbor’s appropriate interpretation and application.

Perhaps the easiest way to identify many of the unclear and (likely) controversial provisions of the second opinion safe harbor provision is to read the amendment proposed by Rep. Smith side-by-side with the amendment-to-the-amendment (pdf) proposed by Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) who, as Patent Docs notes, first offered the second opinion safe harbor amendment on the House floor in April.

An examination of the first three amendments suggested by Rep. Wasserman Schultz reveals the high degree of uncertainty and controversy embedded in the current second opinion safe harbor proposal:

WS Amendment #1. As proposed by Rep. Smith, Section 287(d)(2)(A)(i) limits a “confirming genetic diagnostic test activity” subject to the safe harbor protections to those situations where independent confirmation is “not available from another test provider under a license from the patent owner.” That would seem to close the safe harbor except when there was, in fact, only a single licensed provider of a particular test (as is currently the case with Myriad Genetics and its diagnostic test for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes). The safe harbor would appear to be inapplicable in any scenario in which there were two providers.

It is unclear, however, whether this would be the case even if both “test providers” offered the exact same test using the exact same laboratory procedures (would that even be a truly confirmatory test?) or if the multiple test providers were controlled by a common entity. Also uncertain is when a test would be considered “available” for purposes of the safe harbor provision. Would the requirement of availability require that the test be “affordable and readily accessible to the patient” or simply “available in some form, to some patients at some price”?

Rep. Wasserman Schultz addresses these concerns in her own amendment by simply striking the requirement that the test be unavailable except from the sole test provider, which would appear to broaden the provision to apply even in situations where the patents were licensed on a non-exclusive basis to multiple genetic testing providers.

WS Amendment #2. Rep. Smith’s version of the safe harbor provision would also not apply where a genetic diagnostic test was used for “therapeutic treatment selection” (Section 287(d)(2)(A)(ii)(I)). While that term is not defined, it could be interpreted broadly to exclude from the second opinion safe harbor any genetic diagnostic test the results of which could cause a new or modified clinical course of care.

Such a reading would dramatically limit the scope and relevance of the safe harbor, since most patients, providers and payers are likely to pursue a second opinion only in those situations where a different test result would alter the course of the patient’s care.

In her own amendments, Rep. Wasserman Schultz’s proposal simply strikes the “therapeutic treatment selection” limitation.

WS Amendment #3. In addition to the “therapeutic treatment selection” exception to the safe harbor, Section 287(d)(2)(A)(ii)(I) would also exclude genetic tests “for the purpose of monitoring or reconfirming the individual’s medical status over time” or for any other purpose that required “repeated genetic diagnostic testing.” The presumed intent is to avoid depriving the rights-holder (the patent owner or its licensee) from serving as the first option for any re-testing conducted later in time.

Rep. Wasserman Schultz’s proposal retains this language, but provides an exception-to-the-exception that would permit an infringing genetic diagnostic test to take advantage of the safe harbor, even for repeated diagnostic testing, if the test “utilizes different technologies or has performance characteristics that are sufficiently different from the patented tests that the results can provide information not provided by the patented test.”

The goal would appear to be the encouragement of second opinion testing using non-identical genetic tests (“different technologies or…performance characteristics”), although it is unclear whether this would operate in conjunction with Rep. Wasserman Schultz’s first amendment to prevent the developer of a separate and patented diagnostic test from enforcing its rights when its test was performed following any previous diagnostic test covering the same condition.

All told, Rep. Wasserman Schultz offers ten amendments to the language proposed by Rep. Smith, including this “Rule of Construction”:

The amendment made by subsection (a) [the second opinion safe harbor amendment] shall not be construed to reflect any expression by the Congress with respect to the patentability of genetic material or genetic diagnostic testing.

Will Congress Intervene in the Gene Patent Controversy? It remains highly uncertain whether Congress will manage to pass any patent reform legislation during its current session. Furthermore, should patent reform become a reality, there is no guarantee that the second opinion exemption will be retained. The safe harbor for genetic diagnostic testing was not included in the version of the legislation the Senate passed in March and, even if the House manages to include the provision in its version of the legislation, it could easily be removed during the reconciliation process.

Finally, even if Congress is ultimately able to reach an agreement, the questions about how to interpret and apply a second opinion safe harbor are unlikely to end there. They would almost certainly carry over from Congress to the courts if and when companies and individuals begin seeking shelter in the new safe harbor, should it ever materialize.

Despite these several barriers to the adoption of a second opinion safe harbor for genetic diagnostic testing, the possibility that change could come to the personalized medicine patent landscape should not be entirely ignored.

It is no coincidence that the safe harbor proposal comes just one year after the now-defunct Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetics, Health, and Society (SACGHS) published its controversial report on Gene Patents and Licensing Practices and Their Impact on Patient Access to Genetic Tests (pdf). In that report, SACGHS found that “when there is a patent-enforcing sole provider [of a genetic test], patients cannot obtain independent second-opinion testing” and, as a result, recommended several statutory changes, including “the creation of an exemption from liability for infringement of patent claims on genes for anyone making, using, ordering, offering for sale, or selling a test developed under the patent for patient-care purposes.”

And Rep. Wasserman Schultz’s “Rule of Construction” notwithstanding, the safe harbor proposal must also be viewed as a direct Congressional reply to the ongoing and widely publicized Myriad gene patent litigation. The Myriad litigation was initiated more than two years ago by a diverse group of plaintiffs, including several women seeking genetic testing for mutations linked to breast and ovarian cancer. The plaintiffs’ complaint (pdf) included the allegation that Myriad Genetics’ patents and licensing practices operated to prevent women from “obtaining information about their health risks from anyone other than” Myriad, including denying women access to second opinion testing. As the Myriad litigation enters its third year, some members of Congress are undoubtedly feeling pressure to address the effects of gene patents in the practice and development of personalized medicine using more expeditious means.

[Update, 6/16: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the group largely responsible for coordinating the Myriad litigation, is leading a group of organizations in opposition to the proposed amendment (pdf). The ACLU-led coalition argues that the proposed second opinion safe harbor “would fail to block all patent holder objections to [second opinion] testing, fails to address the many other limitations on scientific research arising out of the issuance of [gene patents], and risks allowing gene patent holders to argue that Congress implicitly endorses the validity of such patents.” The group urges Congress to reject the amendment to avoid creating “unintended harms to patients, medical professionals and genetic researchers.” According to the ACLU’s letter, the American Medical Association has also written separately to Congress to oppose the amendment. The swift response from organizations like the ACLU, the AMA and others suggests that the second opinion safe harbor may be closer to becoming a reality than was previously suspected.]

Although the second opinion safe harbor proposal seems unlikely to pass at this time, at least in its current form, Whether the safe harbor proposal passes or not, it should serve as a stark reminder that even as patent attorneys and biotechnology companies anxiously await the Federal Circuit’s ruling in Myriad—which could come any day now and significantly alter the personalized medicine patent landscape—Congress will continue to loom in the background, with the ability at any moment to completely rewrite the rules of the game.