On September 24, 2010, a federal district court in the Western District of Wisconsin denied a motion for preliminary injunction in a patent lawsuit between two of the leading companies in the field of genetically engineered industrial enzymes, Novozymes and Genencor (a division of Danisco). The two companies are essentially the only competitors in the market for alpha-amylases, used to convert corn into fuel ethanol. According to the order (available here) denying preliminary injunction, Genencor dominated the alpha-amylase market until 1999, when Novozymes entered the market with Liquozyme, a genetically engineered thermostable alpha-amylase. At one point, Liquozyme accounted for more than 80% of the alpha-amylase sold in the fuel ethanol market. In 2008, Genencor responded by introducing its own genetically engineered thermostable alpha-amylases (called GC358). Since then, Novozymes market share has dropped approximately 60%.
The patent being asserted by Novozymes, US patent number 7,713,723 (the ‘723 patent) claims priority to a patent application originally filed in 2000. The original patent application was broadly directed toward alpha-amylase mutants having increased stability at “high temperature and/or low pH conditions, in particular at low calcium concentrations.” However, the claims that ultimately issued in the ‘723 patent, which recite thermostable alpha-amylase variants comprising "a substitution of serine at position 239 relative to the parent alpha-amylase," were not added until 2009, apparently in response to Genencor's marketing of GC358, which presumably includes this mutation. Prior to the introduction of these claims in 2009, the patent application contained no disclosure specifically directed towards substitution of serine at position 239.
Importantly, the '723 patent does not cover Liquozyme, over for that matter any Novozymes product. Liquozyme presumably possesses improved thermostability over the wild type enzyme as a result of a different mutation or set of mutations.
In deciding a motion for preliminary injunction, courts essentially consider four factors: (1) the likelihood the patent owner will ultimately prevail on the merits in the case (i.e., the patent will be found infringed and not invalid); (2) the extent to which the patent owner will experience "irreparable harm" if the infringement is not stopped immediately; (3) the balance of the interests of patent owner an accused infringer; (4) and the public interest. In this case, the district court found that all these factors weighed in favor of Genencor, and denied Novozymes’ motion for preliminary injunction.
The district court decision began by addressing the issue of irreparable harm, the factor which the court found likely to be dispositive by itself. Novozymes argued that it would suffer irreparable harm in the form of diminished reputation, loss of market share and price erosion if Genencor's product were allowed to remain on the market during the course of the litigation. However, the court pointed out that Genencor had entered the market with GC358 in 2008, but that the patent did not issue until May 2010, so that most of Novozymes’ loss in market share occurred when it was perfectly legal for Genencor's product to be on the market. The court surmised that most of the customers who would be inclined to switch from Liquozyme to GC358 had probably already done so, and thus most of the alleged harm identified by Novozymes had already occurred prior to issuance of the patent.
In assessing irreparable harm, the district court found the fact that the patent does not cover any product marketed by Novozymes to be quite significant, pointing out that while Novozymes’ argument that sale of GC358 would harm its reputation "could be persuasive if plaintiffs actually sold a product that practiced the ‘723 patent[,] it is difficult for plaintiffs to argue that their good reputation is contingent on their ability ‘to uniquely make and sell [their] patented alpha-amylase’ when they are not even using the claim technology themselves and identify no plans to do so."
The district court went on to speculate that if "plaintiffs are not trying to protect their own right to provide consumers a product that embodies the patent, then it may be that the patent is nothing more than weapon to prevent defendants from competing with them." In other words, the court seems put off by the fact that Novozymes is not practicing the technology claimed in their patent, treating them as something akin to a non-practicing entity (sometimes referred to as a patent troll).
Likelihood of Success on the Merits
The court also expressed doubt with respect to the likelihood that Novozymes would succeed on the merits of the case, based on the court's determination that there was a substantial likelihood that the asserted patent claims are invalid for lack of enablement and lack of sufficient written description. Both the enablement and written description issues arise out of the failure of the originally filed patent application to sufficiently point out and identify the later claimed substitution of serine at position 239. The patent application identified 33 amino acid positions (including position 239) in alpha-amylase which allegedly can be modified by amino acid substitution, deletion or insertion to result in some increased stability under high temperature and/or low pH conditions. It does not, however, particularly point out position 239, nor does it particularly point out substitution with serine (one of 20 amino acids commonly found in proteins), and it does not correlate the specific mutation particularly with thermostability. Genencor pointed out that the patent specification identified 8.589 x 1042 possible amino acid substitutions, deletions and insertions, and now Novozymes was attempting to claim one of those possibilities that had subsequently been shown by Genencor to provide thermostability.
This case illustrates the difficulty the inventors of genetically engineered proteins face when attempting to obtain adequate patent protection for their inventions. Protein sequence space is vast, and in most cases in which a sequence variant of a protein has been found to have some desirable functional characteristic, there are an astronomical number of alternate sequence modifications that will result in the same functional outcome. I have described this problem in a law review article (available here), and more recently in my amicus brief filed in Ariad v. Lilly (available here). Essentially, the written description and enablement requirements limit the ability of protein engineers to claim protein variants in functional terms, resulting in claims limited to enzyme sharing some degree of structural similarity to variants explicitly disclosed in the patent application. This allows competitors to design around the patent by screening for alternate structural modifications to the amino acid sequence that result in the desired function, as exemplified Genencor’s product that apparently shares the desirable functional characteristics of Novozyme’s product but employs a different structural modification to the amino acid sequence.
Balance of Harms
The court found that the balance of harms in this case favored Genencor, finding that if Genencor were forced off the market the company might "very will be crippled and unable to recover even if the injunction is lifted after the trial." On the other hand, the court found that Novozymes was essentially "asking for assistance in maintaining a monopoly at least until the end of trial."
The fact that Novozymes is not marketing a product covered by the asserted patent also counted against them in the court’s analysis of the effect of an injunction on the public interest. The court found that if Genencor's GC358 were taken off the market customers would be deprived of the patented invention entirely for the course of the litigation proceedings, since Novozymes is not marketing any product covered by the patent. The court found it "somewhat inconsistent for plaintiffs to be arguing on one hand that the ‘723 patent represents an important new invention and then argue on the other hand it should make no difference if no one is allowed to actually use it.”