Process patents are less likely to be patent-ineligible laws of nature

Rapid Litigation Management v. Cellzdirect, Inc., No. 2015-1570 (Fed. Cir. July 5, 2016)

The patentee asserted its patent for a process of preserving hepatocytes. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant, finding that the patent-in-suit claimed a patent-ineligible law of nature under 35 U.S.C. § 101. On appeal, the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded.

Hepatocytes are a type of liver cell that have a number of attributes useful for testing, diagnostic, and treatment purposes, and they are difficult to preserve—they must be frozen soon after extraction and do not have a high yield after thawing. The prior art taught freezing once and thawing for hepatocyte preservation. The patent-in-suit, however, taught a method for twice freezing hepatocytes and disclosed that the twice freezing method had the same yield after thawing as the single freezing method. The district court found that the patent merely disclosed an equivalent yield and, accordingly, held that the patents covered an unpatentable law of nature.

The Federal Circuit disagreed with the district court’s characterization of the claims. Specifically, the Federal Circuit stated that the claims were not simply directed to the capability of hepatocytes to survive multiple freeze-thaw cycles, but were directed to a new and useful laboratory technique for preserving hepatocytes. The Federal Circuit reasoned that these claims differed from patent-ineligible law of nature claims because they did more than just observe the law of nature—they are directed to a new method of better preserving hepatocyte cells. In addition, the steps of that method were not “routine or conventional” in relation to the prior art. In its holding, the Federal Circuit repeatedly emphasized that these claims were eligible because they claimed a method or process, and the result may have been different if the claims only covered the twice frozen hepatocyte product. 

A copy of the opinion can be found here ►