The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found prior art submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), yet withheld from the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) during prosecution of an asserted patent, sufficient evidence for a finding of inequitable conduct. Belcher Pharmaceuticals, LLC v. Hospira, Inc., Case No. 20-1799 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 1, 2021) (Reyna, J.)
The patent in issue relates to injectable formulations of l-epinephrine. Epinephrine is a hormone that has been on the market since approximately 1938 and is used for a variety of medical purposes. It is also known that l-epinephrine degrades into a more potent isomer known as d-epinephrine. L-epinephrine also degrades into an impurity known as adrenalone through a process called oxidation.
In 2012, Belcher first submitted a New Drug Application (NDA) for a 1 mg/mL injectable l-epinephrine formulation. The NDA was literature-based, meaning that Belcher did not perform any clinical or non-clinical studies on its epinephrine formulation to support its application. Among the materials submitted to the FDA was an article by Stepensky et al to support its statement that “racemization of the enantiomerically pure L-Epinephrine isomer in injectable formulations of epinephrine is a well-known process.” It also submitted data from Swiss pharmaceutical company Sintetica SA’s formulation that had a pH range of 3.1 – 3.3 and undetectable levels of adrenalone. Ultimately, Belcher pursued a formulation with a similar pH range of 2.8 – 3.3.
In 2014, Belcher filed a patent application that was ultimately issued as the asserted patent. The patent taught that increasing the in-process pH to 2.8 – 3.3 unexpectedly reduced the racemization of l-epinephrine to d-epinephrine at release by approximately two thirds. The asserted claims covered pharmaceutical epinephrine formulations having a pH between 2.8 – 3.3 and certain concentrations of l-epinephrine, d-epinephrine and adrenalone at the time of release and 12 months later.
The prosecution of the application involved a single office action in which the pending claims were rejected in view of Helenek. The examiner explained that Helenek taught 1 mg/ml of epinephrine injection that, among other things, had a pH range of 2.2 – 5.0. Belcher overcame this rejection by arguing that Helenek did not render obvious the claimed range of 2.8 – 3.3 because the claimed range was unexpectedly found to be critical to reduce racemization of l-epinephrine.
Hospiria also submitted an NDA seeking approval of an injectable l-epinephrine formulation, which included a certification under 21 U.S.C. § 355(b)(2)(A)(iv)(Paragraph IV) that the asserted patent’s claims were invalid, unenforceable and/or not infringed by Hospira’s NDA product. Belcher subsequently sued Hospira for patent infringement.
During trial, Darren Rubin, Belcher’s Chief Science Officer, testified that in his role at Belcher, he was involved in the drafting and development of the NDA and in the prosecution of the asserted patent—including drafting the claims and specification and responding to the examiner’s office action. Darren admitted he knew of Stepensky before the application was filed and that he possessed a label for a 1 mg/mL epinephrine product marked [...]