Applied Biosystems lost a patent dispute on PCR thermocyclers in Europe this month, buoying competitors, including German microarray maker MWG Biotech, which will launch a new thermocycler this week.
On March 12, the European Patent Office revoked Applera’s European patent No. 236 069 B1, entitled “Apparatus and method for performing automated amplification of nucleic acid sequences and assays using heating and cooling steps.”
The patent covered, in Europe, the basic structure of a PCR thermocycler, which is used to amplify DNA for microarray experiments and other uses.
The patent, originally granted to Cetus in 1997, had been opposed by a number of companies in addition to MWG, including: Techne of Cambridge, UK; Whatman International of Maidstone, UK; Boehringer Mannheim of Mannheim, Germany; Biometra biomedizinische Analytik of Goettingen, Germany; Biozym Diagnostik of Hessisch Oldendorf, Germany; and MJ Research of Waltham, Mass.
MWG had initially paid royalties for the patent, but stopped doing so in mid-2000, according to Wolfgang Pieken, CSO and head of marketing and sales at MWG.
“Many other companies didn’t pay, and we didn’t either,” he said, and MWG joined the ongoing opposition proceedings as an intervening party at the end of 2002.
With the EPO’s decision, which is final, “the market is opening up quite a bit for MWG,” Pieken said. “At least in the European market, for now, we gained increased freedom to operate,” he said.
Until now, the company had distributed thermocyclers from Clemens, a German company based in Waldb ttelbrunn, offering them mainly as part of a liquid handling station. This week, MWG is going to launch its own line of thermocyclers, called THEQ Lifecycler, at the Forum Labo trade show in Paris. MWG developed these devices in collaboration with Quanta Biotech of Somerton, UK.
MWG had already set aside an undisclosed amount of cash for payments it would have had to make if the EPO’s decision had favored Applera.
The new instrument has a server that can operate up to 48 blocks, which can be programmed independently. It will be “competitively priced” with high-end thermocyclers from Eppendorf, according to Pieken. MWG plans to introduce a low-throughput version, called My Cycler, at Analytica in May, and plans to market this system beyond Europe.
Applied Biosystems considers any losses of licensing fees resulting from the EPO’s decision as “immaterial,” according to a company spokeswoman, who pointed out that it only affects instruments both manufactured and sold in Europe.