MLA launches Federal Court bovine genome patent fight

James Nason, 16/11/2016

Science DNA technology researchA Federal Court challenge has been launched by Meat & Livestock Australia against a patent decision that it fears will seriously threaten the future of genetic research in the cattle industry.

In what appears to be an extraordinary development, Australia’s patent office IP Australia has approved an application by North American companies Cargill USA and Branhaven LLC to patent the bovine genome in Australia.

If the decision is allowed to stand, it potentially means all genomic work carried out on Australian beef cattle in future would incur a license fee, payable to Cargill USA and Branhaven LLC.

MLA and Dairy Australia learned of, and opposed, the patent application earlier this year, citing the potential impact it could have on the cost and ability of Australia’s red meat and dairy industries to adopt cattle genomic tools.

However their attempts were unsuccessful and the Australian Patent Office allowed Cargill USA and Branhaven’s LLC application to proceed on May 6.

mla-logoMLA says the implications of the patent decision are so serious for industry it sees no choice now but to launch legal proceedings to appeal IP Australia’s decision to the Federal Court.

Cargill USA and Branhaven’s LLC application is seen by MLA as a bid to patent “general discoveries of nature” in beef and dairy cattle research.

MLA says the patent application is so broad that it affects genomic selection for all cattle production traits.

It believes the patent will affect the use of most DNA-associated genetic tests in the industry.

Cargill USA and Branhaven LLC have licensed only a handful of commercial operators to provide those services on the payment of royalties.

Richard Norton

Richard Norton

MLA Managing Director Richard Norton made references to the patent application fight during his address to last week’s MLA AGM in Hahndorf.

He warned of significant scientific and financial implications for research agencies and the industry if the patents proceed.

Remarkably this is not the only patent application MLA is fighting on this front.

Another genomic patent application, by Victorian Government subsidiary company Agriculture Victoria Services Pty Ltd, was opposed by MLA and CSIRO on similar grounds.

Research stakeholders being notified

Mr Norton has today written to MLA’s research partners, the Australian red meat and livestock industry’s peak councils and other stakeholders, to alert them to MLA’s actions and the potential effects of the patent on their own activities.

“If allowed to proceed to grant, MLA considers the Cargill/Branhaven patent will affect the use of most DNA-associated genetic tests in the industry,” MLA said in statement issued to Beef Central today in response to questions about the patent application fight.

“Cargill USA and Branhaven LLC have licensed only a handful of commercial operators to provide those services on the payment of royalties.

“At a minimum, MLA believes the granting of the patent will discourage or hamper industry research into understanding the natural genetic makeup of beef and dairy cattle and the continued progress of Australia’s national genetic improvement programs.

“In turn, MLA fears there will be a subsequent impact on farm productivity and ultimately the Australian red meat and dairy industries, given the contribution that genetic improvement makes to their international competitiveness.”

MLA’s investment in genomic research and development – on behalf of its levy payers and the Australian Government which matches industry’s research investment – is substantial and currently accounts for approximately 15% of MLA’s total on-farm R&D portfolio.

The hearing date for the case will be set down by the Federal Court in 2017.

Mr Norton said last week that MLA was fighting the patent on behalf of industry and had support from Government on ways to address the patents in future.

A spokesman for Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee chair, Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan, said the senator had been briefed by MLA on the issue and “was considering all options”.

More details on the patent application can be viewed on the Australian Patent Office website here:

The Cargill/Branhaven application is titled ‘Compositions, methods and systems for inferring bovine traits’ and covers “Cattle Selection Methods’. The broadest of the claims in the application encompasses:

A method for identifying a trait of a bovine subject from a nucleic acid sample of the bovine subject, comprising identifying in the nucleic acid sample an occurrence of at least three single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) wherein the at least three SNPs are associated with the trait, and wherein the at least three SNPs occur in more than one gene and wherein at least one of the SNPs corresponds to approximately 2500 listed SNPs, or within 500,000 or less nucleotides from the listed SNPs.

This was unsuccessful and the Australian Patent Office subsequently allowed the application to proceed on 6 May 2016.

MLA has elected to appeal the Patent Officer’s decision to the Federal Court.

In his letter to MLA research stakeholders today, Mr Norton said the Australian Patent Office decision to grant the patent presented “very significant scientific and financial implications for our respective research agencies and for the Australian beef industry more generally”.

Little information is publicly available about Branhaven LLC, which acquired the interests of another company called MetaMorphix Inc pursuant to that company’s bankruptcy proceedings.

He noted that MLA was part of a consortium which in 2013 successfully defended Australia’s livestock industries by opposing a similarly damaging patent application lodged by MetaMorphix and Cargill back in 2003.

Mr Norton said MLA’s limited resourcing meant that if the patent is successful and is enforced, it would compel MLA to review its investments in genomic R&D.

“While MLA has conducted its own assessment of the implications of this patent in guiding its decision to first oppose and now appeal the decision to allow the Cargill/Branhaven application to grant, you may wish to seek your own infringement advice regarding the effects of the patent on your organisation’s activities,” he wrote.



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  1. Peter Vincent, 16/11/2016

    IP Australia is responsible for administration of the Patents Regulations determined by the Patents Act 1990 and is not charged with responsibility for considering the social or ethical ramifications of the application but simply compliance with the regulations which are put in place by the Commonwealth.
    The 2004 report to Government by the Australian Law Reform Commission suggested that rather than attempt to change the patent system itself, any social or ethical effects of a patented invention should be addressed by direct government regulation of the use and exploitation of the invention, however regulating the use of patented inventions is a never-ending administrative burden for all bar the bureaucrats.
    Government must balance the pro’s and con’s of any legislation with the extremes being surrendering control to commercial companies on one hand and consigning Australia to the technology back-woods on the other, however politicians should at least feign an interest in protecting Australian industry by amending core legislation governing patents.

  2. David Bellamy, 16/11/2016

    Australia’s Patent office heads should roll in this. Who do they think there are?
    Do they understand the ramifications of what will happen if this is allowed?
    No person or company should be allowed to place a hold over any of the animal kingdom species genome’s.They can’t speak for themselves!
    It costs Stud breeders heaps every year for test to be done, if this happens they will be controlled by a company that never paid for the genome results to start with. And these people should be stopped in their tracks
    This should create a national farmers revolt, and have Govt intervention and stopped ASAP.
    It just goes to show how weak the patent laws are for this to get as far as it has.
    Thank you MLA its about time you showed some fight and put paid to this!

  3. J Chris Hughes, 16/11/2016

    We must be incredibly thankful for the MLA and Dairy Australia’s stand on this issue, To have the Australian bovine genome controlled by any organisation let alone a foreign one is ridiculous.
    We would hope that the intellectual property associated with the bovine genome can be returned as the common property of Australian cattle producers.

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