NEW YORK, April 18 - The US Justice Department has dropped its 3-year patent-rights investigation of Applera and the gene sequencers developed by its Applied Biosystems unit.
The decision marks a significant turning point in a sealed civil lawsuit filed two years ago by MJ Research, which challenges ABI's rights to its gene-sequencing technology.
According to the suit, which is ongoing, ABI's patent should be declared invalid because researchers at Caltech, where the technology was first developed, used government funds to create the machines. The suit also alleges that the patent should have given credit to Henry Huang, who worked on the technology as a post-doc in Leroy Hood's lab at Caltech.
The Justice Department had been investigating these charges and had the option of taking over the litigation on behalf of the plaintiffs. Last month it quietly declined but retains the right to intercede in the future.
Caltech and ABI both claim the Justice Department decision indicates the suit is groundless, but government officials did not say their move reflects the merits of the case, according to USA Today, which first reported the US government's decision today.
A successful challenge to the ABI patent would have profound consequences for both the genome-sequencer industry and genomic scientists. If courts determine that Caltech researchers did in fact use federal funds to develop the sequencer, the government would be entitled to a deep discount on ABI machines, which now retail for about $330,000.
According to the USA Today article, is also possible, although unlikely, that the patent could be invalidated entirely, and the technology returned to the public domain.