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Oxford Nanopore Responds to Illumina Allegations of Patent Infringement

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – In a letter to the US International Trade Commission (ITC) this week, Oxford Nanopore Technologies denied Illumina’s allegations of patent infringement, arguing that Illumina's claims actually represent an attempt to stifle competition and extend its monopoly in the DNA sequencing market.

The legal row began in February when Illumina filed two lawsuits — one with the ITC and another with the US District Court for the Southern District of California — claiming that Oxford's MinIon and PromethIon devices infringe two patents exclusively licensed by Illumina from the University of Washington. The patents relate to the use of Mycobacterium smegmatis porinA (MspA) as the basis for a protein nanopore sequencing system.

The MinIon is a handheld nanopore sequencing device that is commercially available, while the PromethIon is a higher-throughput version that has not yet been commercialized. 

In its letter to the ITC, Oxford said that Illumina's allegations are based on "unsubstantiated speculation," and that the company has no proof that the MinIon device has any relationship to the technology covered by the patents.

Oxford further told the commission that Illumina's acquisition of the rights to the patents occurred after Illumina CEO Jay Flatley participated as an observer on Oxford's board, which was provided regular updates on Oxford's effort to license the patents from the University of Washington for itself.

"Despite denying any conflicts of interest when asked and despite having signed a nondisclosure agreement, Illumina secretly entered into negotiations with the University of Washington … which eventually resulted in Illumina procuring a license to the asserted patents," Oxford said.

The company further added that Illumina is using the ITC action "as yet another weapon in its long-running campaign to thwart Oxford Nanopore's research and commercialization efforts. Illumina hopes to use this proceeding to block the commercialization of Oxford Nanopore’s products, all with the ultimate intent of expanding its already overwhelming monopoly power into the nanopore space, which would be extremely detrimental to competition in the DNA sequencing market in the United States." 

Oxford also claimed that Illumina's suit could be damaging to public health and welfare as the "exclusion of the MinIon would interfere with important ongoing medical, scientific, and industrial research because neither Illumina nor any other supplier can fill the resulting void."

Specifically, Oxford said, the MinIon is being used to conduct field research on viruses such as Ebola and Zika. This research "could not be completed as rapidly and in the field without MinIons," Oxford alleged, as traditional sequencing technology such as what Illumina offers would require that blood samples be shipped from the field to a lab for analysis, making the process more laborious and slower.

Oxford asked that the commission take into account the issues of public interest as the administrative law judge conducts an investigation into Illumina's claims.