In Part II of this blog on legal issues relating to the revival of phage therapy I discussed the US Supreme Court’s decisions in Myriad and Prometheus, which might present major obstacles to the patentability of phage-related technology (a more detailed analysis of the Myriad and Prometheus decisions is available here).
Yet, all is not lost. As indicated in Part II, Myriad does not directly affect the patentability of synthetically modified biological compounds and Prometheus would still allow patents on inventive applications of natural processes and correlations that add new features to “natural laws”. Thus there still seems to be considerable leeway for patenting within the area of page therapy.
One example, mentioned in a recent Nature article, could be the skillful selection and precise combination of different phages in order to attack one specific type of bacteria. Such selections, however, would face a tough battle to overcome the “additional features that add significantly more” and “not identical” thresholds set by Prometheus and Myriad. Another example with even better prospects for patentability relates to genetically modified phages that are – due to human intervention – enabled to target only specific bacteria. This technology was recently presented by MIT researchers at the 2014 American Society for Microbiology Meeting. The researchers led by Timothy Lu had genetically engineered phages that use a DNA-editing system called CRISPR to target and kill only antibiotic-resistant bacteria while leaving other susceptible cells untouched. The significant engineering and alteration of natural products and processes involved in such inventions would most likely meet both the Myriad and Prometheus standards.
Yet, while the USPTO has recently issued new patent eligibility guidance and the CAFC has begun to directly apply Prometheus and Myriad to reject patent claims in biotech cases (e.g. In re Roslin), many questions remain unsolved. In particular, it is still not sufficiently clear exactly how much modification is required to render a molecule or method sufficiently distinct from naturally occurring product and processes. And even if the patent-eligibility threshold could be met in extraordinarily circumstances, the claimed invention would still have to fulfil other patentability requirements such as novelty, non-obviousness and the written description-requirements. The threshold for these requirements, however, have been heightened in recent years (see e.g. KSR v. Teleflex (2007) , Nautilus (2014) etc.). Considering that phage therapy is almost a century old with a substantial common general knowledge and a state of the art employing routine methods, these crucial requirements might still prevent the patentability of many useful applications.
Three days ago I commented on a couple of legal issues raised in the recent Nature report “Phage therapy gets revitalized” by Sara Reardon. One challenge concerns the reluctance of pharma companies to broadly invest in the development of phage therapies. As pointed out in the report, this does of course very much (but not only) relate to the question of patentability. Various aspects might present obstacles to the patentability of technology relating to phage therapy. To not complicate the discussion and considering recent developments I decided to focus on some of aspects under US patent law.
Like in Europe, the first door to patentability that phage-related technology would need to pass concerns patent eligibility. In the last years the US Supreme Court has rendered an astonishing number of fundamental patent-decisions, including not less than four (!) landmark judgments on patent eligibility, i.e. Bilski v. Kappos (2010), Mayo v. Prometheus (2012) , AMP v. Myriad (2013) and Alice v. CLS (2014). Most relevant in this context are the decisions in Prometheus and Myriad.
Last week I blogged about recent publications concerning the global battle against anti-microbial resistance (AMR). I did not mention a recent paper published in the June 2014 issue of Nature, which describes how European and U.S. researchers and authorities are increasingly considering clinical research in unconventional areas to fight AMR. The news-report “Phage therapy gets revitalized” by Sara Reardon concentrates on the use of viruses (bacteriophages) to battle bacteria. The idea is not new, but apart from some applications in the former Soviet Union, it never was established as a major research area elsewhere. In particular the paper examines the European Phagoburn project, which is the first large, multi-centre clinical trial of phage therapy for human infections, funded by the European Commission. It involves a phase I-II trial of using viruses for the treatment of bacterial infection following burns. The European Union (EU) is contributing €3.8 million (US$5.2 million) to the Phagoburn study demonstrating that it is taking the approach seriously. Meanwhile, the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced in March 2014 that it regards phage therapy as one of seven key areas in its strategy to fight antibiotic resistance.
So far Western practice has concentrated on treating complex or unidentified infections with broad-spectrum antibiotics. These antibiotics would typically eliminate multiple types of bacteria, including those who have beneficial effects to the human organism. Despite resulting in direct negative consequences for patients, e.g. gastrointestinal disorders, these “atomic bomb” approaches can result in biological niches where resistant “bad bugs” can prosper. This is the reason why scientists are turning towards more targeted approaches. This is where phage therapy comes into play. Like “guided missiles”, phage-therapy has the ability to kill just species of bacteria or strain. Quoting the US virologist Ryland Young and the head of the scientific council at the Eliava Institute in Tblisi (Georgia), Mzia Kutateladze, the Nature report explains how nature offers an almost unlimited source of different phages and that so far no identical phages have ever been found. For this reason it is fairly simple to identify a particular phage for a bacterial target. If the bacterium should become resistant against that particular phage, researchers would modify the viral cocktails that are used for treatment by adding or substituting phages. At the Eliava Institute such updates occur – according to the report – approximately every 8 months and the scientists would not be fully aware of the precise combination of phages in the cocktail.
In light of these advantages the recent interest of US and EU stakeholders in phage therapy comes as no surprise. However, the scientific and legal challenges confronting these projects are complex. After all we are talking about viruses here, which triggers alarm bells with regard to public perception, safety concerns, and the regulation of relevant research. It also appears questionable if – or under what circumstances – regulatory authorities would be willing to grant market approval for such a rapidly changing product like in the case of e.g. influenza vaccines. Another significant problem for the development of new phage therapies, also addressed in the paper, lies in the reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to invest into the field. The potential obstacles for more private involvement in phage therapy are many and range from considerable risks of failure, reputational damage, and unforeseeable side-effects to insufficient certainty with regard to intellectual property protection and guarantees of a profit.
One of my previous blogs discussed the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). I concluded that antimicrobial resistance is a growing and complex threat involving multifaceted legal, socio-economic and scientific aspects. This requires sustained and coordinated action on both global and local levels.
A recent medical review on drug resistant tuberculosis supports these findings and provides further fodder to the debate. In their study, which was published in April 2014 in The Lancet – Respiratory Medicine, the authors analyzed the epidemiology, pathogenesis, diagnosis, management, implications for health-care workers, and ethical and medico-legal aspects of extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis and other resistant strains. In particular, the authors discussed the increasing threat of functionally untreatable tuberculosis, and the problems that it creates for public health and clinical practice. The paper concludes that the growth of highly resistant strains of tuberculosis make the development of new drugs and rapid diagnostics for tuberculosis—and increased funding to strengthen global control efforts, research, and advocacy—even more pressing.
This was also recognized in the recent WHO’s Global Surveillance Report on AMR, which was published this April. It is the first WHO report that studied the problem of AMR on a global level. Noting that resistance is occurring across many different infectious agents, the report concentrates on antibiotic resistance in seven different bacteria responsible for common, serious diseases such as bloodstream infections (sepsis), diarrhoea, pneumonia, urinary tract infections and gonorrhoea. The results demonstrate a wide-spread growth of resistance to antibiotics, especially “last resort” antibiotics. In particular the report reveals that this serious threat is no longer a mere forecast for the future. AMR is a contemporary problem in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country. Consequently the WHO report concludes that antibiotic resistance is now a major threat to public health that needs to be tackled on a global level.
Please find attached a ppt presentation on “New regulatory pathways and incentives for sustainable antibiotics: Recent European & US Initiatives” given on March 7, 2014 at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. The presentation was followed by a discussion moderated by US patent attorney Melissa Hunter-Ensor, Partner at Saul Ewing, Boston.
I started out by emphasizing increasing problems of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) on a global level, providing new statistics and facts. This was followed by a discussion of main reasons for these alarming developments, such as inappropriate use in agriculture and medicine, insufficient precautions, lack of education, climate change, travel behavior, insufficient collaboration and funding of R&D, scientific complexities, and the problem that incentives provided by the traditional innovation system model often fail in the case of antibiotics.
Next the presentation focused on a variety of solution models that could be discussed to fight AMR. These include both conservational and preventive approaches comprising use limitations, increased public awareness, and better hygiene, but also reactive push & pull strategies, such as increased investments, new collaborative models for R&D in antibiotics, prizes, “sui generis” IP-related incentives, regulatory responses and new pathways for approval.
We may be living in a golden age of group-think. A weekly reminder is poor Paul Krugman railing against the apparently universal belief in America and Europe that we’ve got to cut budgets right now or disaster will strike. He calls this a Zombie idea, a false claim that has been falsified with plenty of stakes in the heart, silver bullets and blows to the head, but will not stay in the grave.
Closer to home for us in public health is the claim that Americans don’t like government rules regulating their behavior and meddling with their preferences. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have delivered some solid blows to the idea that paternalism typically messes with solid preferences. As we celebrate Public Health Week, I want to highlight two recent papers that show that Americans, like the children in Mary Poppins, actually like their nannies, who do some pretty great things.
Public Health Law Research has recently posted the manuscript of a paper that Evan Anderson and I have prepared for the Annual Review of Law and Social Science. The paper describes the dramatic rise of law as a tool of public health since the 1960s in five major domains: traffic safety, gun violence, tobacco use, reproductive health and obesity. These topical stories illustrate both law’s effectiveness and limitations as a public health tool. They also establish its popularity by the most apt of metrics – the willingness of legislators to enact it. The one picture worth a thousand words, below, depicts the rapid adoption of a variety of interventions by state legislatures. (By the way, the five examples also show that public health law research can and does influence the development and refinement of legal interventions over time.)
Typically, we would avoid such a shameless plug for our researchers — we’d be a little more subtle. But, we can’t help it this time. This book is the best $10 you’ll spend all year.
A little less than a month ago, Johns Hopkins University convened more than 20 of the world’s leading experts on gun violence and policy to summarize their research and recommend policy changes. This 282-page book features empirical research from the leading experts in the field covering the topics of mental health and gun violence, gun law enforcement, high-risk guns, international case studies of responses to gun violence, the Second Amendment, public opinion on gun policy, and concludes with a summary of the recommendations for reforms to Federal policies.
Chapter 3, “Preventing Gun Violence Involving People with Serious Mental Illness,” features research conducted by Jeffrey Swanson, PhD, and his team of researchers based at Duke University. The research presented was funded by PHLR and the National Science Foundation.
As the New York Times reports (quoting me on the ethics), some American IVF clinics are now running raffles where the prize is IVF services. The contests give clinics publicity and sometimes serve charitable causes. Are IVF raffles unethical? Should we ban them?
Gambles and contests over the ability to have babies represent a new level of commodification—if you will, a new frontier. But they are not always unethical. Clinics do not owe infertile couples free access to IVF services. In some cases, the state and insurers don’t owe it to them either—legally or morally. IVF is expensive and some medical services are needed even more badly. Uninterested couples can avoid these raffles. What these raffles do is to give infertile couples opportunities that they would lack otherwise for obtaining an important benefit, opportunities that go beyond what clinics owe them. Lotteries, in particular, are not necessarily unfair means of distributing resources. Some philosophers deem them very fair. Even when couples with means can buy several raffle tickets, impoverished couples still get better chance of IVF access than under the current system. Money speaks, but it speaks less vocally than in much of American healthcare. In this respect, these raffles are a good parody of our unjust system.
These contests are games. Conservatives worry that they take infertility or the beginnings of human life too lightly. But light-heartedness could be a good thing in this area. It might reduce the anxiety and the stigma that too often accompany infertility treatment. Associating the conception of new human life with fun? Traditional procreation can do that, too!
In short, not everything that’s odd is unethical. Notwithstanding initial “yuck” feelings, raffles for IVF access are not always morally wrong. It would have been morally more ideal if clinics offered free IVF services to everyone, or prioritized the neediest and the underserved, or gave rich and poor equal chance. But acting less than ideally is not doing wrong. Continue reading →
An article by Julia Costich, MPA, JD, PhD, and Dana Patton, PhD, in the October 2012 edition of the American Journal of Public Health reveals the tip of the iceberg on a highly discussed and yet insufficiently researched topic: the legal infrastructure. While the team reports a significant impact of the legal infrastructure of local health departments on population health outcomes, the paper also raises questions regarding the role of law more generally in the functioning of health departments.
While we “see” law all the time in action, we rarely “see” law as an important factor influencing the way health agencies operate. Sure, we understand law as a way to drive the behavior of individuals by regulating sugar-sweetened beverages or prohibiting texting while driving or preventing smoking in indoor spaces — this is called interventional law — but there is a lesser-known cousin, infrastructural law, that desperately needs our attention.
While public health officials, policy-makers, advocates and academics regularly discuss the funding and organization of health departments at both the state and local levels, they less often step back to think about what is driving the process — law. As states are facing significant fiscal crisis, funds are a major concern, but it is important to remember that appropriations are made through law. Additionally, in recent years, during natural disasters such as hurricanes in the south and major floods in New England, there were questions in the news about which agencies should be doing what and when. The authority for a health department to act and/or to act in concert with another agency is derived from law.