EST Claims Invalid for Lack of Specific Utility
The claimed invention related to five purified nucleic acid sequences that encode proteins and protein fragments in maize plants. When a gene is expressed in a cell, the relevant double-stranded DNA sequence is transcribed into a single strand of messenger ribonucleic acid ("mRNA"). The messenger RNA contains three of the same bases as DNA (A, G, and C), but contains uracil ("U") instead of thymine. mRNA is released from the nucleus of a cell and used by ribosomes found in the cytoplasm to produce proteins. Complementary DNA ("cDNA") is produced synthetically by reverse transcribing mRNA. cDNA, like naturally occurring DNA, is composed of nucleotides containing the four nitrogenous bases, A, T, G, and C. Scientists routinely compile cDNA into libraries to study the kinds of genes expressed in a certain tissue at a particular point in time.
An EST is a short nucleotide sequence that represents a fragment of a cDNA clone. It is typically generated by isolating a cDNA clone and sequencing a small number of nucleotides located at the end of one of the two cDNA strands. When an EST is introduced into a sample containing a mixture of DNA, the EST may hybridize with a portion of DNA. Such binding shows that the gene corresponding to the EST was being expressed at the time of mRNA extraction.
The a'643 pplication generally disclosed that the five claimed ESTs may be used in a variety of ways, including:
- serving as a molecular marker for mapping the entire maize genome, which consists of ten chromosomes that collectively encompass roughly 50,000 genes;
- measuring the level of mRNA in a tissue sample via microarray technology to provide information about gene expression;
- providing a source for primers for use in the polymerase chain reaction ("PCR") process to enable rapid and inexpensive duplication of specific genes;
- identifying the presence or absence of a polymorphism;
- isolating promoters via chromosome walking;
- controlling protein expression; and
- locating genetic molecules of other plants and organisms.
"Following Brenner, our predecessor court, the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, and this court have required a claimed invention to have a specific and substantial utility to satisfy § 101. See, e.g., Fujikawa v. Wattanasin, 93 F.3d 1559,
1563 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“Consequently, it is well established that a patent may not be granted to an invention unless substantial or practical utility for the invention has been discovered and disclosed.”).The Supreme Court has not defined what the terms “specific” and “substantial” mean per se. Nevertheless, together with the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, we have offered guidance as to the uses which would meet the utility standard of § 101. From this, we can discern the kind of disclosure an application must contain to establish a specific and substantial utility for the claimed invention.
. . . Simply put, to satisfy the "substantial" utility requirement, an asserted use must show that that claimed invention has a significant and presently available benefit to the public. . . . [I]n addition to providing a "substantial" utility, an asserted use must also show that that claimed invention can be used to provide a well-defined and particular benefit to the public. . . .
Regarding the seven uses asserted by Fisher, we observe that each claimed EST uniquely corresponds to the single gene from which it was transcribed ("underlying gene"). As of the filing date of the ’643 application, Fisher admits that the underlying genes have no known functions. Fisher, nevertheless, claims that this fact is irrelevant because the seven asserted uses are not related to the functions of the underlying genes. We are not convinced by this contention.
Essentially, the claimed ESTs act as no more than research intermediates that may help scientists to isolate the particular underlying protein-encoding genes and conduct further experimentation on those genes. The overall goal of such experimentation is presumably to understand the maize genome – the functions of the underlying genes, the identity of the encoded proteins, the role those proteins play during anthesis, whether polymorphisms exist, the identity of promoters that trigger protein expression, whether protein expression may be controlled, etc. Accordingly, the claimed ESTs are, in words of the Supreme Court, mere "object[s] of use-testing," to wit, objects upon which scientific research could be performed with no assurance that anything useful will be discovered in the end. Brenner, 383 U.S. at 535.
Fisher compares the claimed ESTs to certain other patentable research tools, such as a microscope. Although this comparison may, on first blush, be appealing in that both a microscope and one of the claimed ESTs can be used to generate scientific data about a sample having unknown properties, Fisher’s analogy is flawed. As the government points out, a microscope has the specific benefit of optically magnifying an object to immediately reveal its structure. One of the claimed ESTs, by contrast, can only be used to detect the presence of genetic material having the same structure as the EST itself. It is unable to provide any information about the overall structure let alone the function of the underlying gene. Accordingly, while a microscope can offer an immediate, real world benefit in a variety of applications, the same cannot be said for the claimed ESTs. Fisher’s proposed analogy is thus inapt. Hence, we conclude that Fisher’s asserted uses are insufficient to meet the standard for a "substantial" utility under § 101.
Moreover, all of Fisher’s asserted uses represent merely hypothetical possibilities, objectives which the claimed ESTs, or any EST for that matter, could possibly achieve, but none for which they have been used in the real world. Focusing on the two uses emphasized by Fisher at oral argument, Fisher maintains that the claimed ESTs could be used to identify polymorphisms or to isolate promoters. Nevertheless, in the face of a utility rejection, Fisher has not presented any evidence, as the Board well noted, showing that the claimed ESTs have been used in either way. That is, Fisher does not present either a single polymorphism or a single promoter, assuming at least one of each exists, actually identified by using the claimed ESTs. Further, Fisher has not shown that a polymorphism or promoter so identified would have a "specific and substantial" use. The Board, in fact, correctly recognized this very deficiency and cited it as one of the reasons for upholding the examiner’s final rejection.
With respect to the remaining asserted uses, there is no disclosure in the specification showing that any of the claimed ESTs were used as a molecular marker on a map of the maize genome. There also is no disclosure establishing that any of the claimed ESTs were used or, for that matter, could be used to control or provide information about gene expression. Significantly, despite the fact that maize leaves produce over two thousand different proteins during anthesis, Fisher failed to show that one of the claimed ESTs translates into a portion of one of those proteins. Fisher likewise did not provide any evidence showing that the claimed ESTs were used to locate genetic molecules in other plants and organisms. What is more, Fisher has not proffered any evidence showing that any such generic molecules would themselves have a specific and substantial utility. Consequently, because Fisher failed to prove that its claimed ESTs can be successfully used in the seven ways disclosed in the ’643 application, we have no choice but to conclude that the claimed ESTs do not have a "substantial" utility under § 101.
Furthermore, Fisher’s seven asserted uses are plainly not "specific." Any EST transcribed from any gene in the maize genome has the potential to perform any one of the alleged uses. That is, any EST transcribed from any gene in the maize genome may be a molecular marker or a source for primers. Likewise, any EST transcribed from any gene in the maize genome may be used to measure the level of mRNA in a
tissue sample, identify the presence or absence of a polymorphism, isolate promoters, control protein expression, or locate genetic molecules of other plants and organisms. Nothing about Fisher’s seven alleged uses set the five claimed ESTs apart from the more than 32,000 ESTs disclosed in the ’643 application or indeed from any EST derived from any organism. Accordingly, we conclude that Fisher has only disclosed general uses for its claimed ESTs, not specific ones that satisfy § 101.