7 min read

Australia’s Federal Court Decision, Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. v Sandoz Pty Ltd [2021] FCA 947, concerns a patent claiming two pharmaceutical substances having different first regulatory approval dates; one less than 5 years after the patent filing date and one more than 5 years after the patent filing date.  The decision considers whether the first regulatory approval more than 5 years after the filing date can be considered the first approval for PTE-eligibility purposes. 

Patent Term Extensions (PTEs) in Australia

Australia’s Patents Act provides patent term extensions (PTEs) to account for the delays that can occur when obtaining regulatory approval for pharmaceuticals (see s70-79A of Patents Act 1990).  A PTE can last for up to five years and is available when the following requirements are met:

  • the patent, in substance, discloses and claims a pharmaceutical substance per se, or a pharmaceutical substance when produced by recombinant DNA technology;
  • goods containing or consisting of the pharmaceutical substance are included in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG);
  • the PTE application is made within six months after the later of (a) the date the patent was granted and (b) date of the first inclusion in the ARTG; and
  • the first regulatory approval for the pharmaceutical substance occurred more than five years after the filing date of the patent.

The length of a PTE is equal to the period between the filing date of the patent and the date of the first regulatory approval, reduced by five years.  A patent cannot be extended more than once.

Background

Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. v Sandoz Pty Ltd [2021] FCA 947 concerns the patent term extension granted in connection with Australian patent 2002320303, which covers two pharmaceutical substances for the treatment of diabetes: sitagliptin and a composition containing sitagliptin and metformin.  The patent was filed on 5 July 2002 and its ordinary term was therefore set to expire on 5 July 2022

Sitagliptin was first included in the ARTG on 16 November 2006, i.e. less than five years after the filing date. 

The composition containing sitagliptin and metformin, however, was first included in the ARTG on 27 November 2008, six years, four months and 22 days after the filing date of the patent.  The patentee, Merck Sharp Dohme (MSD), applied for a PTE based on the regulatory approval of the sitagliptin/metformin composition and the term of the patent was extended until 27 November 2023

Sandoz contended that the extension of term was invalid and sought rectification of the register to reflect a patent expiry date of 5 July 2022

Reliance on the Ono decision

This decision relies heavily on the recent decision, Ono Pharmaceutical Co, Ltd v Commissioner of Patents [2021] FCA 643.

As recently reported here. Ono addressed the issue of “earliest first regulatory approval” in the context of a patent covering two blockbuster cancer drugs; the patentee’s drug and a competitor’s drug.  The competitor’s drug received regulatory approval before the patentee’s drug and the issue was therefore which regulatory approval date was relevant for deciding the patentee’s PTE request.

In Ono, Justice Beach noted that PTEs are intended to provide an effective patent life for pharmaceutical products.  His Honour reasoned that the drug which is the subject of the PTE application is intended to be the drug of the patentee, not that of a third party.  His Honour also commented that it is for the patentee to nominate the pharmaceutical substance for the purposes of requesting a PTE (which can be any pharmaceutical substance that is in substance disclosed and claimed in the patent). 

Justice Beach concluded that the patentee’s own first regulatory approval (rather than the competitor’s earlier first regulatory approval) could form the basis of the request. 

The “earliest first regulatory approval date”

In the present case, MSD argued that “the earliest first regulatory approval date” means either:

(a) the earliest first regulatory approval date of any substance claimed by the patent which is included on the ARTG and which received regulatory approval at least 5 years after the patent’s filing date (MSD’s primary construction), as nominated by the patentee (based on Ono), or

(b) the earliest first regulatory approval date of all substances claimed by the patent which are included on the ARTG and which received regulatory approval at least 5 years after the patent’s filing date (MSD’s alternative construction).

That is, MSD’s construction required any regulatory approvals for pharmaceutical substances less than 5 years after the patent filing date to be disregarded for the purpose of assessing PTE eligibility. 

If MSD’s construction were to be followed, the ARTG approval of sitagliptin could be ignored (being less than 5 years after the patent’s filing date) and PTE eligibility could be determined based on the date of inclusion in the ARTG of the combination of sitagliptin and metformin (i.e. the first regulatory approval which is at least 5 years after the patent’s filing date). 

Sandoz contended that “the earliest first regulatory approval date” means the earliest regulatory approval date of any pharmaceutical substance in the patent – this corresponds to the date of inclusion in the ARTG of sitagliptin.  Following this line of argument, if regulatory approval is secured for any pharmaceutical product claimed by the patent less than 5 years after the patent filing date, no patent term extension can be obtained. 

Reasoning and discussion

MSD submitted that all of the factors which Beach J considered relevant in Ono are equally relevant to the present case. Justice Jagot disagreed. 

Her Honour took the view that the absurdity identified in Ono was the fact that a patentee could be granted an extension of term of zero merely because the earliest first regulatory approval date would be that of an unrelated company relating to the same substance.  In the present case, however, it was the patentee who had obtained regulatory approval for both substances covered by the patent.

Her Honour noted:

It is one thing to conclude that it is absurd for a patentee to be denied any term of an extension due to an earlier regulatory approval by another unrelated party of which the patentee may not have known and over which the patentee would have had no control. … It is another to conclude that it would be absurd for a patentee to be denied any term of an extension due to an earlier regulatory approval by the patentee or its agent of which the patentee must have known and over which the patentee had control. In such a case, the patentee, by definition, will not have been delayed in obtaining regulatory approval for a substance or the substance in its patent for at least five years.” 

Justice Jagot also commented on the crucial presence of the word “earliest” in s77(1) of Patents Act 1990, which sets out how to calculate of an extension of term. 

Her Honour was of the opinion that it is clear that the legislature considered a delay of less than five years after a patent filing date for obtaining regulatory approval for a pharmaceutical substance covered by the patent was acceptable and did not require a capacity for an extension of term of the patent, commenting:

There is no reason to infer that the legislature intended that a patentee with a patent disclosing and claiming more than one pharmaceutical substance intended that there could be an extension of term if the patentee obtained inclusion of one or more pharmaceutical substances in the ARTG within five years of the date of the patent but then also obtained inclusion of one or more pharmaceutical substances in the ARTG five years or more after the date of the patent. Provided one pharmaceutical substance has been included in the ARTG within five years of the date of the patent, the patentee has had the benefit of the monopoly afforded by s 13 of the Patents Act within the period of delay the legislature considered acceptable.”

Conclusion

Justice Jagot agreed with Sandoz, taking the view that the regulatory approval date of sitagliptin (less than 5 years after the patent filing date) was to be used in calculating the length of the PTE.  Her Honour thus concluded that the extension of term of MSD’s patent is zero and ordered that the Register be rectified as sought by Sandoz.

Implications

This decision confirms that, if a patent covers more than one pharmaceutical substance for which the patentee has obtained regulatory approval, the calculation of the extension of term must be based on the substance that was approved first.  If the approval date of that substance is within five years of the filing date of the patent, no extension of term will be granted.

Patent Applicants should therefore consider separating substances that have received (or are expected to receive) regulatory approval into multiple patents, for example by pursuing each substance in its own divisional patent application.  This will ensure that each patent is able to enjoy the maximum extension of term that is available to it based on the substance that it covers.

Authored by Serena White, DPhil and Michael Christie, PhD

5 min read

Australia’s Federal Court Decision, Ono Pharmaceutical Co, Ltd v Commissioner of Patents [2021] FCA 643, overturns the Patent Office Decision, Ono Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. et al [2020] APO 43, in which the Patent Office had found that the substance with the first regulatory approval date for the purpose of the patent term extension request was a competitor product.  In a Judicial Review of the Patent Office decision, the Federal Court found instead that the substance with the first approval date was the patentee’s own, later-approved product.

Patent Term Extensions (PTEs) in Australia

Australia’s Patents Act provides patent term extensions (PTEs) to account for the delays that can occur when obtaining regulatory approval for pharmaceuticals.  A PTE can last for up to five years and is available when the following requirements are met:

  • the patent, in substance, discloses and claims a pharmaceutical substance per se, or a pharmaceutical substance when produced by recombinant DNA technology;
  • goods containing or consisting of the pharmaceutical substance are included in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG);
  • the PTE application is made within six months after the later of (a) the date the patent was granted and (b) date of the first inclusion in the ARTG; and
  • the first regulatory approval for the pharmaceutical substance occurred more than five years after the filing date of the patent.

The length of a PTE is equal to the period between the filing date of the patent and the date of the first regulatory approval, reduced by five years.  A patent cannot be extended more than once.

Background

Ono Pharmaceutical Co, Ltd v Commissioner of Patents [2021] FCA 643 concerned a request to extend the term of Australian patent 2011203119.  The patent claims encompassed two blockbuster cancer drugs: Merck Sharp & Dohme’s KEYTRUDA and the patentee’s OPDIVO, both of which received regulatory approval in Australia, but on different dates.  Thus, the question at issue was which regulatory approval date was relevant for deciding the patentee’s PTE request.

To cover all of its bases, the patentee simultaneously filed two PTE requests: one based on the competitor product, KEYTRUDA, which had received regulatory approval on 16 April 2015, and another based on its own product, OPDIVO, which had a regulatory approval date of 11 January 2016.  The PTE request based on KEYTRUDA was accompanied by a request for an extension of time. 

From the patentee’s perspective, the request based on OPDIVO was preferred as it would result in a longer extended term (an additional 8 months, 26 days). 

The Overturned Patent Office Decision

Initially, the Patent Office refused the PTE request based on OPDIVO, finding that KEYTRUDA was included on the ARTG first and therefore should form the basis of the request.  The patentee disagreed and requested to be heard.

At the Patent Office hearing, and as previously reported, the patentee’s request for a PTE based on OPDIVO was again refused (Ono Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. et al [2020] APO 43).

The Federal Court Decision: Ono Pharmaceutical Co, Ltd v Commissioner of Patents [2021] FCA 643 (11 June 2021)

Justice Beach of the Federal Court observed that PTEs are “designed to remedy the mischief of a shortened period for an effective monopoly that has been caused by delays in obtaining regulatory approval”. 

Justice Beach framed the question at issue as follows:

“… it is whether an application for an extension must be filed within 6 months of the first inclusion in the ARTG of goods containing or consisting of any pharmaceutical substance falling with the claims of the patent:

(a)          where the goods were those of the patentee (the applicants’ position); or

(b)          irrespective of whether the goods were those of the patentee, that is, they could be the goods of a third party that had nothing to do with the patentee and, moreover, might be a competitor [the position taken by the Patent Office]”

Answering this question involved consideration of the intended meaning of the relevant provisions and the history of the legislation, including the 1997 Explanatory Memorandum (EM), the second reading speech to the Bill that became the 1998 Amendment Act (the speech) and the now-repealed s 76A of the Patents Act 1990. 

Justice Beach noted that PTEs are intended to provide an effective patent life for pharmaceutical products and the reference to “product” was “clearly not that of a stranger let alone a competitor”.  His Honour rhetorically asked how the legislation would provide an effective patent life if the product on the ARTG triggering the start of the extension was not that of the patentee, but rather that of a stranger or indeed a competitor, concluding, “[t]hat would not provide an “effective life” for the patentee at all”.

Justice Beach also determined that it is for the patentee to specify the pharmaceutical substance for the purposes of requesting a PTE (which can be any pharmaceutical substance that is in substance disclosed and claimed in the patent). 

His Honour reasoned that the drug which is the subject of the PTE application is intended to be the drug of the patentee, not that of a third party.  His Honour considered that the Patent Office’s interpretation of the law would place an unreasonably onerous burden on the patentee who would need to review each and every ARTG listing to identify those that contain a pharmaceutical substance falling within the scope of the claims (to the extent possible, noting also the dearth of information provided in ARTG public summaries), and to determine whether another relevant substance was previously listed on the ARTG but later removed, as can occur in certain circumstances. 

Justice Beach acknowledged, however, that the Patent Office’s approach was understandable in light of the text being construed and that a Delegate of the Patent Office is not as free as a Judge to reject any perceived ordinary meaning of the legislation by reason of manifest absurdity or unreasonableness. 

Conclusion

Justice Beach agreed with the patentee and favoured a liberal rather than a literal construction of the legislation, commenting in summary that a liberal construction can fit within the ordinary meaning of the statutory language and is consonant with the legislative purpose.

It was therefore concluded that the term of the patent should be extended based on the regulatory approval date of the patentee’s own pharmaceutical substance, OPDIVO, even though KEYTRUDA was approved earlier. 

Implications

This decision lifts the burden for patentees of the need to monitor the ARTG for approval of third party drugs.  In circumstances where a patent covers more than one approved pharmaceutical substance, the decision implies that a PTE request does not have to be based on the substance that was approved earliest. 

Authored by Serena White, DPhil and Michael Christie, PhD

3 min read

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has commenced a timely public consultation into the repurposing of prescription medicines, which seeks to better understand the incentives and potential hurdles influencing sponsors’ decision-making on whether to extend the approved indication for an existing medicine. Of particular interest to the TGA is the viability of repurposing medicines for rare diseases or less commercially profitable indications, or in circumstances where the new indication is already accepted clinical practice, albeit ‘off-label’ in Australia or elsewhere.

As part of its consultation paper the TGA has proposed far-reaching changes that have the potential to significantly reduce the regulatory burden on sponsors when applying for the inclusion of a new indication, improve information sharing and access to related international regulatory and reimbursement approvals, and implement open access to Australian medicine usage data.

Repurposing and ‘off label’ use

Repurposing, also referred to as second medical use, is the use of a known drug for a new therapeutic purpose. Repurposing is a promising avenue in drug discovery and has been an active area of growth in the last decade for a variety of drug classes, particularly chemotherapeutic agents.

Among the most visible recent examples of potential repurposing have been the investigation of known medicines such as chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine (both anti-malarials), remdesivir (an antiviral developed to treat Ebola) and tocilizumab (a monoclonal antibody developed to treat rheumatic conditions) and numerous other existing medicines as potential COVID-19 treatments.

Repurposing has the important benefit of decreasing the overall cost of bringing a new treatment to market and broadening access to it by Australian prescribers and patients, as the safety and pharmacokinetic profiles of the repurposed candidate have already been tested and established in connection with its original indication(s). 

In recent years, the TGA has worked with innovator sponsors to enable them to make submissions based on peer-reviewed literature, rather than clinical data, for registration of new indications for existing medicines on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). This in turn has enabled reimbursement for the indication through listing on Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). 

In one such example, the TGA worked with the sponsor of Tamoxifen, a well-known breast cancer hormonal treatment in clinical use since the 1970s, to submit a literature-based application for a new indication (the prevention of breast cancer in high-risk women), which is an off-label use supported by recommendations in both Australian and international clinical care guidelines.

However, the TGA cannot compel sponsors to seek ARTG registration for a new indication that does not meet the sponsor’s business objectives, even where widespread and clinically-supported off-label use exists. Commercial imperatives are therefore one of the main barriers to less profitable second medical use indications becoming registered and subsidised.

Proposed approaches to facilitating and encouraging repurposing of medicines

The TGA has outlined three broad approaches to encouraging ARTG regulatory and PBS reimbursement applications for repurposed medicines, summarised below.

Proposal 1 – Reduce regulatory burden

  • Develop and provide specific regulatory support and guidance for repurposing medicines, including clinical trial design and scientific advice.
  • Assist with the development of literature reviews to simplify literature based submissions.
  • Facilitate access to comparable overseas evaluation reports, where they exist.
  • Improve the coordination of multi-jurisdictional submissions with other regulators.
  • Provide fee relief (currently a TGA application and evaluation for an extension of indication is approximately $148,000), for submissions for medicines that have low commercial returns but high public health gains.
  • Streamline simultaneous submissions for regulatory and reimbursement evaluation.
  • Provide exclusivity periods for the first sponsor of new indications of repurposed off-patent medicines.

Proposal 2 – Enhanced information sharing and access

  • Facilitate open access to Australian medicine usage data.
  • Provide a simple mechanism to find related international regulatory and reimbursement approval assessment reports or decision summaries.

Proposal 3 – Actively pursue registration and review

  • Seek public expressions of interest for sponsorship of new indications of a medicine, potentially limited to non-commercial organisations.
  • Compelling sponsors to make an application for an additional indication.
  • Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) to have the ability to approve the inclusion of an additional indication without the need for an application by the sponsor.

The issues raised by this consultation paper have important and far-reaching implications for both innovator and generic sponsors, and it will be of interest to see the outcome of this first round of pubic consultation, which concludes on 30 March 2021.

Authored by Duncan Longstaff

7 min read

Sandoz Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S [2020] FCAFC 133 (4 August 2020)

In the long-running patent dispute relating to Lundbeck’s blockbuster antidepressant, Lexapro® (escitalopram), the Full Court of Australia’s Federal Court overturned a decision of Jagot J, who had found Sandoz liable for infringement of the Lexapro patent and awarded Lundbeck more than AU$16 million in damages. Lundbeck has recently been granted special leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia, which for the third time will hear an appeal regarding an aspect of this litigation.

Background

The original 20-year term of the Lexapro patent (AU 623144) was due to expire in June 2009. In April 2004, the Commissioner of Patents granted a 5-year extension of the patent term, calculated by reference to the first regulatory approval date for Lexapro. The active ingredient of Lexapro is escitalopram, the S-enantiomer of citalopram. A racemic form of citalopram (a mixture of the S- and R-enantiomers) was earlier marketed in Australia by Lundbeck under the trade name Cipramil.

In subsequent Federal Court proceedings, that extension of term was held invalid (Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S (2008) 76 IPR 618; upheld on appeal: H Lundbeck A/S v Alphapharm Pty Ltd (2009) 177 FCR 151). The Court found that any extension of term application needed to be made by reference to Cipramil, being the first approved therapeutic goods that “contain” the S-enantiomer of citalopram within the meaning of the Patents Act 1990 (Cth) (the Act). It followed that such application was required to be made within six months of the first regulatory approval date for Cipramil. Lundbeck’s application was therefore submitted out of time.

In consequence, the Lexapro patent expired on 13 June 2009, at the end of its original term. Three days later, Sandoz and other generics launched generic escitalopram products. In doing so, they appeared to be taking a risk. On 12 June 2009, Lundbeck had sought an extension of time to submit a new extension of term application, based on the first regulatory approval date for Cipramil.

Given that the time limit for submitting such an application expired in mid-1998, Lundbeck required a 10-year extension of time. Nevertheless, that extension was granted, on the basis that the applicable time limit had been unclear until determined by the Federal Court in June 2009 (Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S (2011) 92 IPR 628; upheld on appeal: Aspen Pharma Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Patents (2012) 132 ALD 648; Aspen Pharma Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S (2013) 216 FCR 508; Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S (2014) 254 CLR 247).

Armed with this extension of time, Lundbeck submitted a new application to extend the term of its Lexapro patent. In June 2014, some 5 years after the patent had expired, that extension was granted (Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S (2014) 109 IPR 323; upheld on appeal: Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S (2014) 110 IPR 59; Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S (2015) 234 FCR 306; Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S [2016] HCATrans 52).

The newly extended term of the Lexapro patent expired in December 2012. By that time, Sandoz and other generics had been marketing escitalopram products in Australia for over three years. Lundbeck sought damages for infringement of the Lexapro patent during that period.

In defence of such damages claim, Sandoz relied on a settlement agreement it had reached with Lundbeck in February 2007 (Settlement Agreement). In return for Sandoz discontinuing its revocation case against the Lexapro patent, Lundbeck agreed to grant Sandoz an irrevocable licence to the patent, effective from a date two-weeks prior to its expiry (the Early-entry licence).   

At the time that agreement was reached, the expiry date of the Lexapro patent remained uncertain – litigation concerning the validity of the original extension of term was ongoing. The agreement recorded several alternative dates on which the Early-entry licence might commence. However, it did not address the possibility that the term of the Lexapro patent might expire and, sometime later, be extended. That is, of course, what transpired.

In defence of Lundbeck’s damages claim, Sandoz submitted that, on a correct construction of the Settlement Agreement, the Early-entry licence commenced in May 2009, two-weeks before expiry of the Lexapro patent, and remained in force thereafter. By contrast, Lundbeck submitted that, because the term of the patent was extended to December 2012, the early-entry licence did not commence until November 2012, leaving Sandoz liable for infringement in the intervening period.

First instance decision

Lundbeck was successful before the primary judge (H Lundbeck A/S v Sandoz [2018] FCA 1797). However, Jagot J did not accept either party’s construction of the Settlement Agreement.

Her Honour found that, under the terms of the Settlement Agreement, the Early-entry licence commenced in May 2009, two weeks before the Lexapro patent expired. In reaching that conclusion, Jagot J held that the operation of the agreement ought not be tested by reference to the fact that, 5 years later, a new extension of term was granted, because this could not have been predicted by the parties in February 2007, when they entered into the Settlement Agreement.

However, in Jagot J’s view, this was not the end of the matter. Noting that Sandoz would not require a licence after the Lexapro patent had expired, her Honour found that the effect of the Settlement Agreement was to confer on Sandoz a licence which commenced in May 2009 and ceased to operate two weeks later, upon the expiry of the patent’s original term.

It followed, in Jagot J’s view, that Sandoz did not have the benefit of a licence when the term of the Lexapro patent was subsequently extended. Based on these findings, Jagot J held Sandoz liable for infringing the patent between June 2009 and December 2012, awarding Lundbeck in excess of AU$16 million in damages.

Decision

An appeal by Sandoz to the Full Court was successful. The critical issue on appeal concerned the construction of the Settlement Agreement, in particular, whether the Early-entry licence ceased to operate on expiry of the original term of the Lexapro patent in June 2009, or continued thereafter.

In approaching that question, the Full Federal Court reiterated well-established principles of contract construction. The terms of a contract are to be construed objectively. The question is what the language used would convey to a reasonable business person, in light of the surrounding circumstances known to both parties at the date of their agreement, including the objects of the contract, and assuming that the parties intended to achieve a commercial result. A court will be slow to adopt a construction that would give a contract an effect that is commercially nonsensical.

On the other hand, the Full Court emphasised that commercial common sense and surrounding circumstances may not be invoked to discount the language in which a contract is expressed. The fact that a contractual provision may operate to disadvantage one party to an agreement is not a reason to depart from the ordinary meaning of the language in which that provision is expressed.

In the view of the Full Court, the language of the Settlement Agreement was sufficiently clear. It granted Sandoz an irrevocable licence that commenced in May 2009, two weeks before expiry of the Lexapro patent, and remained in force thereafter. The Full Court held that, objectively ascertained, it was the parties’ intention to stipulate a start date for the licence, but not an end-date.

Notably, the Full Court agreed with Jagot J that it appeared neither party had, at the time of concluding the Settlement Agreement in February 2007, turned their mind to the possibility that the Lexapro patent might expire and only subsequently have its term extended. That is unsurprising, given unprecedented course of the Lexapro proceedings. As the Full Court observed, had the parties been able to foresee the course those proceedings would take, it is likely that express provision would have been made for such eventualities in the Settlement Agreement.

Significance

The Full Federal Court’s decision highlights the complexity of the extension of time and extension of term provisions under Australia’s patent legislation which, together or separately, can significantly affect the course of the litigation and the negotiation of commercial settlement terms.

The decision of the Full Federal Court does not yet bring to a close one of the most complex patent disputes in Australian legal history, as Lundbeck was recently granted special leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia (H. Lundbeck A-S & Anor v Sandoz Pty Ltd; CNS Pharma Pty Ltd v Sandoz Pty Ltd [2021] HCATrans 13 (11 February 2021). That will be the third time this litigation has reached the High Court for a substantive appeal, with Lundbeck previously succeeding in obtaining both its application for an extension of time to apply for an extension of term and then the extension of term application itself. Over its long course, the Lexapro litigation has made a number of significant contributions to Australian patent law, including in relation to the validity of enantiomer claims and the operation of the provisions of the Act which govern extensions of term and extensions of time, and now it appears set to contribute to Australia’s contract law as well.

Authored by Andrew Rankine and Duncan Longstaff