DNA robots and patent eligibility

October 05, 2017

A recent breakthrough by scientists at Caltech includes making robots out of DNA that can pick things up and move it around.  Such DNA robots represent an avenue of research exploration into what has become widely known as the burgeoning field of Nanotechnology.  Nanotechnology includes the manipulation of matter with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers.
The work by the scientists at Caltech represents a milestone on the path to create molecular robots that have the potential to revolutionize medicine, particularly with regard to personalized medicine.  Specifically, the work demonstrates that a plurality of DNA robots are able to operate independently and in parallel, to work together to solve a problem.  In this example, the DNA robots comprise 53 nucleotides, resulting in DNA robots 20 nanometers tall, where each DNA robot includes a hand and arm for manipulating cargo, and a foot and leg for walking.  In this way, the Caltech scientists were able to create DNA robots capable of traveling on a surface, picking up cargo, and then traveling again until a specific drop-off point is encountered.
Such robots may in the future be useful in a wide variety of medical contexts, from detecting cancer and other disease markers, to setting up molecular factories that can build drugs and send them into the bloodstream, on demand.  Accordingly, with such important clinical applications, it is desirable for the creators of such technology to acquire protection for their work.
However, this is where things get interesting and potentially complicated.  Five years ago, in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012) (Mayo), the Supreme Court held that method claims for treating autoimmune diseases based on metabolite levels of drugs administered to the patient are patent-ineligible, as the claims merely recite a natural law (correlation of metabolite level and drug dosage).  Such a decision could adversely affect what may comprise revolutionary breakthroughs in personalized medicine, such as that which may be eventually realized by the DNA robots created at Caltech, or other related technologies.  For example, it is likely that molecular nanorobots designed to fight cancer would base any strategy on underlying natural laws.  More specifically, it is conceivable that molecular robots may sense environmental surroundings in the vicinity of a tumor, and may adjust delivery of drugs or other strategies accordingly, to fight the tumor condition.
Thus, when attempting to obtain protection for such technologies as described above and other related technologies, it will be imperative to develop strategies to overcome rejections due to the outcome of the Mayo case.  For example, it will be imperative to develop claims that are sufficient to ensure that the claimed concept(s) amount to significantly more than a “judicial exception”, which includes laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas.  Given the Mayo decision, creating such claims may be challenging.  As this is an active area of research that represents potentially revolutionary discoveries pertaining to personalized medicine, expect to see future developments on this blog with strategies and suggestions for overcoming the Mayo case in situations related to nanotechnology and personalized medicine.

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