European Patent No. 2430454 [EP Register here] of Stanford University is open to opposition before the European Patent Office if such opposition is filed by 23 October 2013. This is the European equivalent of the US Patent that raised such controversy in this journal in August 2013 as being a patent on time [the patent is presumably one of these: US7963906, US8323177 and US8337387, although the August 2013 article refers to publication number US 2011/092762. None of these are, of course, patents on time]. The European Patent, which is directed to a method of selecting embryos for implantation using the results of time-lapse microscopy, should, in the present authors’ opinion, be revoked as being directed to a method of medical diagnosis, which is unpatentable under European patent law. The only party currently opposing Stanford’s patent is a competitor, Unisense FertiliTech A/S which is itself seeking to patent similar methods in Europe; the objection that Stanford has patented a method of diagnosis has not been raised by Unisense FertiliTech. We submit that Stanford’s patent should be opposed to safeguard competition and to protect the freedom to operate of clinicians. In this paper we explain how Stanford’s patent should fail under European law.The argument in the article, which is well worth reading in full, is quite well put and at least plausible, although very probably wrong. The main weakness in the argument seems to me to be whether an embryo can be considered to be a human body. Although there does appear to be support from the CJEU on this interpretation, I think it is possibly a bit of a stretch to apply this to the particular exclusion under Article 53(c). The case law of the EPO Boards of Appeal, in particular the decision in G 1/04 (see this section of the case law book), would also seem to suggest that such a method would not be within the exception because it does not provide a diagnosis for curative purposes. The test would instead only provide an indication of whether an embryo is 'good' or 'bad'. The argument therefore seems to me to be doomed to fail on at least two major points.
The article has, however, already had the desired effect of provoking another opposition. An opposition has recently been filed (here) which, by an amazing coincidence, names the authors of the article and the European Society of Human Reproduction & Embryology as joint opponents. As an aside, I am a bit puzzled as to why the opposition would be filed in this way, rather than using the qualified European attorney as the joint representative.
Regardless of the new opposition, it looks like the patent will probably be revoked, or at least substantially limited, as a result of the opposition that has already been filed, which is very extensive and relies only on conventional grounds of novelty and inventive step. As a point of interest, one of the prior public disclosures cited by Unisense Fertilitec is a YouTube video (see below), which apparently shows the patented method being carried out prior to the filing date. It will, however, be interesting to see how the additional ground for opposition is viewed, and whether it becomes at all relevant or is simply dismissed as being a no-hoper. One to watch for the long term, perhaps, given the long gestation period of EPO oppositions.
UPDATE 5 November 2013: Third party observations have now been filed by Galway Fertility (here) and jointly by the Association of Clinical Embyologists (ACE) & the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) (here), both sets of observations presumably having been prompted by the Sterckx et al article. Both make points based on ethical, rather than legal, grounds, so do not appear to add any further legal weight to the additional opposition. The support by ACE has also been announced on the ACE website here.
UPDATE 20 November 2013: My reply to the paper, which is to be published as a letter in the same journal, is currently in press and available here.
UPDATE 9 May 2014: The patent proprietor's representative has now responded to the oppositions. Their letter of response can be accessed on the EP register here. In brief, they seem to be in agreement with me (unsurprisingly) that the claimed invention is not a method of diagnosis within the meaning of Article 53(c), and for the same reasons. The main points are that i) the method is not a diagnosis of any kind, and ii) it does not result in any kind of treatment. G 1/04 is fairly decisive.