Lilly v HGS – Article 3(a) SPC Regulation – Guidance on obtaining SPCs based on functional claims
Article 3(a) of Regulation 469/2009 requires that a product which is the subject of an application for an SPC must be “protected by a basic patent in force”. This was held by the Court of Justice of the European Union (the “CJEU”) in Medeva (Case C-322/10 [noted on this weblog here]) to mean that the active ingredient must be “specified” in the wording of the claims.
In October 2012 the Patents Court for England and Wales (Warren J) in Eli Lilly and Company Ltd v Human Genome Sciences, Inc. referred further questions to the CJEU regarding the interpretation of Article 3(a). In December 2013 the CJEU handed down its judgment in the Lilly case (C-493/12), holding that it is not necessary for the active ingredient to be identified in the claims of the patent by a structural formula. Article 3(a) does not, in principle, preclude the grant of an SPC where the active ingredient is covered by a functional claim provided that “the claims relate, implicitly but necessarily and specifically” to the active ingredient in question.
The case returned to the Patents Court (Warren J) in May and June 2014. The judgment provides important guidance as to the interpretation of the CJEU’s decision and the circumstances in which SPCs may be obtained for products based on claims defined in functional terms.
Human Genome Sciences, Inc. (“HGS” – now owned by GlaxoSmithKline) is the proprietor of European Patent (UK) No 0 939 804 which relates to and claims a novel protein called Neutrokine-α and antibodies which bind specifically to it. The patent has been held to be valid by the UK Courts (including the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court) and the Technical Board of Appeal of the European Patent Office. Of particular importance is the wording of claim 13 which claims:
“An isolated antibody or portion thereof that binds specifically to (a) the full length Neutrokine-α polypeptide … or (b) the extracellular domain of the Neutrokine-α polypeptide …”.Eli Lilly and Company Ltd (“Lilly”) wishes to market, in due course, a product containing an antibody (known as tabalumab) that binds specifically to Neutrokine-α. Lilly has not yet received a marketing authorisation (“MA”) for tabalumab.
Lilly issued a claim against HGS seeking a declaration from the Patents Court that any SPC granted to HGS in respect of the patent and based upon any MA for tabalumab would be invalid.
Lilly’s case was that tabalumab is not “protected by” the patent for the purposes of Article 3(a) as tabalumab is not specified in the wording of the claims. That, Lilly submitted, would require a structural definition of the active ingredient in the claims of the patent.
Lilly had originally sought to argue a further ground on which any SPC would be invalid, namely that HGS would not be able to obtain an SPC based on the HGS Patent and an MA held by a third party (Lilly) – the “Third Party Issue”. Lilly discontinued this aspect of the claim before the CJEU hearing in September 2013.
HGS’s case was that tabalumab fell within the scope of protection of claim 13 (as interpreted by section 125 of the UK Patents Act, Article 69 of the European Patent Convention (“EPC”) and the Protocol on the Interpretation of Article 69) and that that claim related “implicitly but necessarily and specifically” to tabalumab, as required by the CJEU.
The judgment of Warren J
As with other decisions of the CJEU in relation to the SPC Regulation, regrettably the guidance given is not clear. This is reflected by the fact that both Lilly and HGS had applied to the Patents Court for judgment in their favour on the basis of the CJEU’s decision. The Court also observed that “one thing the [CJEU decision] does not give is the clear guidance which the reference was designed to obtain” (paragraph 4).
In dismissing Lilly’s claim for declaratory relief, the Court explains (paragraph 67) that the CJEU has clearly held that functional definitions can, in principle, be sufficient to bring an active ingredient within the protection of a basic patent. This is on the condition that the “claims relate implicitly but necessarily and specifically” to the active ingredient.
The Court held at paragraph 70 that the correct reading of the CJEU’s judgment required an application of the relevant rules (i.e. Article 69 EPC or Section 125 Patents Act 1977) to ascertain the extent of the invention and what the claims relate to. If the active ingredient in question is covered by the claims, it is protected for the purposes of Article 3(a) – subject to a proviso.
This proviso is explained at paragraph 66 of the Judgment and is necessary to reflect the approach of the CJEU in Medeva in relation to products containing combinations of active ingredients. A product is not protected within the meaning of Article 3(a) solely by virtue of a claim containing general wording that extends the claim beyond its principle scope (such as “comprises”). However, in the absence of such extending words, the Court held that “the claims have a focused scope and the question is simply whether the product falls within the scope of the claims” (paragraph 66). Lilly had conceded during the course of these proceedings that tabalumab falls within the scope of claim 13 of the patent, and the proviso did not apply since there were no extending words. Tabalumab was therefore “protected by” the patent within the meaning of Article 3(a).
Finally, the Court considered (at paragraphs 44-54 of the judgment) that paragraph 43 of the CJEU’s decision, which relates to whether a patent owner has made any investment in the research leading to the MA, is more relevant to the discontinued Third Party Issue than to the test under Article 3(a). However, the Court made clear that SPCs are intended to be available without discrimination for the type, or stage, of research leading to the grant of the basic patent.
The judgment provides welcome guidance on the interpretation of Article 3(a) and confirms the availability of SPCs for products based on functional claim language (such as for antibodies defined by their binding target). On Friday Lilly was been granted leave to appeal, so the issues will be reviewed further in due course.