Lilly loses British Supreme Court ruling over gene patent

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The British Supreme Court ruled in favor of Human Genome Sciences Inc. in its dispute with Eli Lilly and Co. over the validity of a patent for a gene sequence that could be used to treat people with immune diseases.

The United Kingdom's top court upheld a patent awarded to Rockville, Md.-based Human Genome in 2005 for the neutrokine alpha protein, part of the tumor necrosis factor “superfamily” of proteins. Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly had persuaded a U.K. judge in a previous hearing to revoke the patent on the basis that Human Genome’s list of potential uses for the gene was too vague.

One of the five U.K. Supreme Court judges who ruled in the dispute, Robert Walker, said it was an “important case” for the bioscience industry. The decision would “reduce the risk of a chilling effect on investment in bioscience” and “align this country’s interpretation of the European Patent Convention more closely” with other countries, he said.

The European Patent Office, which isn’t part of the European Union and has 38 member countries, offers the closest thing currently available to an EU-wide patent. Once the patent is granted, a company has to defend it in each country where it is valid.

Lilly maintains the patent is invalid and is “exploring available avenues to make its case,” the company said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday. “Human Genome Sciences seek to foreclose a whole area of research in a way that is not only harmful to the industry, but would ultimately and unjustifiably hinder the future development of new medicines,” it said.

Lilly stock rose 45 cents Wednesday morning, to $37.68 per share.

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