In 18 June 2021, a Full bench of the Federal Court of Australia (Middleton, Nicholas, and Burley JJ) unanimously upheld a decision of a single judge of the court (Beach J), finding that a method of detecting cell-free foetal DNA (cffDNA) in maternal blood serum comprises patent-eligible subject matter (i.e. a ‘manner of manufacture’) under Australian law: Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc v Sequenom, Inc  FCAFC 101. The patent at issue is Australian patent no. 727,919, covering an invention originally developed by Oxford University researchers, and subsequently transferred to Sequenom Inc. The patent expired in March 2018, however a live dispute remains because Ariosa Diagnostics licensed its ‘Harmony Test’ – which Sequenom says (and the Full Court has agreed) infringes the patent – for use in Australia since at least September 2015.
To my mind, the result in this case is neither particularly surprising nor contentious. The patent claims are directed to a method of detecting cffDNA. While the method is underpinned by the naturally occurring fact – not known until its discovery by the inventors prior to March 1997 – that cffDNA is present in maternal blood serum, a useful method of detecting a previously unknown natural phenomenon, having a practical application, has long been considered patentable. Ariosa’s arguments that Sequenom’s claims were in substance directed to the ‘mere’ discovery itself, resulted only in the production of ‘information’, and therefore unpatentable, were unsuccessful. And while the broad scope of the main claim in this case might raise other issues, such as obviousness or sufficiency of description, these matters have also been addressed at first instance and/or on appeal, and are separate from the question of subject matter eligibility.
Nonetheless, this case will generate some interest, if only because the result in Australia is opposed to the outcome of equivalent litigation between Sequenom and Ariosa involving a corresponding patent in the United States. In that case, a narrower claim than in Australia was found to be directed to an unpatentable natural phenomenon. The result was controversial, not least because a number of judges on the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) – including Judge Linn on the original panel (Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc.v. Sequenom, Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2015)) and Judges Lourie and Dyk in a decision refusing en banc rehearing – indicated that they felt bound by the Supreme Court precedents, but did not agree with the outcome. There was therefore great disappointment when the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
The outcome of the Australian appeal is not all bad news for Ariosa, however, with the finding of the primary judge on infringement being partially reversed. In particular, there were periods during which the Harmony Test was not carried out in Australia, but instead samples were sent to the US for testing by Ariosa, which the primary judge found also to be infringing actions. The Full Court has disagreed, finding that ‘importing’ the information resulting from the tests into Australia did not comprise a relevant ‘exploitation’ of the claimed method, as it might have done were the product of the method a physical article.