A decision by the House of Lords backing Angiotech Pharmaceuticals in a dispute with Conor MedSystems is being hailed as a groundbreaking decision that will make it easier for pharmaceutical firms to get patent protection in the UK.

According to Canada-based Angiotech, the Lords confirmed, “in a precedent-setting decision”, the validity of one of the firm’s patents related to its paclitaxel coated stents. The patent in question was granted in June 1997 and opposed by Conor and four other companies but after more than “nine years of legal battles, their challenge proved unsuccessful and the validity of the patent was maintained,” Angiotech notes.

Then, in February 2005, Angiotech brought a lawsuit against Conor in the Netherlands and the latter responded by commencing proceedings in the UK to revoke the patent. Conor argued that the claims in the patent lacked “inventive step” (ie, were obvious) under UK law.

Both the UK trial court and the UK Court of Appeal decided that the patent was indeed invalid so Angiotech appealed to the House of Lords which has upheld the validity of its patent and agreed with the Dutch court’s earlier decision that clarifies the obviousness standard in relation to innovations.

Commenting on the case, Sue Streatfield, an intellectual property specialist at law firm Eversheds, said it could lead to “a lowering of the current threshold for achieving inventive step”. She noted that Lord Hoffman found that the test for the latter is to be determined by whether the product is obvious not whether it has the claimed effect. Therefore, “so long as a patent is sufficient, the test should not be affected by the amount of evidence the specification contains as to whether the invention will work,” Ms Streatfield added.

The House of Lords decision, which was unanimous, reflects “an important development in bringing uniformity to the interpretation” across Europe, Angiotech added.