Pacific Biosciences Inc. (PacBio) has filed their third lawsuit of the last 12 months against Oxford Nanopore Technologies (ONT) for two separate patent violations. A publicly available docket reveals that the claim was filed with Delaware District Court on September 25th and has yet to be assigned a judge. Both patents in question refer to US sales and marketing.

The first claim relates to Patent No. 9,678,056, which was issued in June. PacBio claim that their patent covers the use of an enzyme to control the speed at which DNA is passed through a nanopore and that ONT’s sequencers are utilising the same technology. ONT’s MinION and PromethION sequencers both work by monitoring ionic changes that take place when a single DNA strand is passed through a biological nanopore; enzymes are used to ensure that the fragment moves at the correct speed for the sequencer to take a reading.

The second claim covers Patent No. 9,738,929, which was issued in August. The patent refers to using sequencing information from two complementary strands to build a consensus sequence, something which ONT use for both 2D and the recently announced 1D2 sequencing. If ONT were forced to abandon this technique, then it could significantly set back the accuracy of their sequencers.

Neither company have yet commented on this development.

ONT have a long and colourful history with lawsuits, and with PacBio in particular. The strained relationship has been forming since late 2016, but ONT have been fielding patent disputes for much longer than that.

ONT’s Illustrious Lawsuit History:

  • February 2016Illumina file a lawsuit against ONT, claiming that the bacterial nanopore (R7) that was ‘most likely’ used in their sequencers infringed on a patent held by researchers at Illumina. ONT’s CEO, Gordon Sanghera, responded to the suit with characteristic good humour, saying, “It is gratifying to have the commercial relevance of Oxford Nanopore products so publicly acknowledged by the market monopolist.”
  • March 2016 – ONT announce a new set up for their MinION and PromethION sequencers that uses a different nanopore with better performance, R9, for which they hold a patent.
  • August 2016 – Illumina and ONT settle their lawsuit, without payment from either party. Consumables from ONT’s sequencers using R7 have already been made unavailable and are replaced by consumables using R9.
  • November 2016 – PacBio begin the first of their lawsuits against ONT, starting with the latter’s hairpin adaptor. The adaptor is used in 2D sequencing, a technique that sequences both strands of a DNA fragment; 2D sequencing takes longer than 1D but is more accurate.
  • March 2017PacBio launch a second lawsuit against ONT regarding the detection method their sequencers used when DNA was passed through the nanopore. Again, Sanghera was flippant about the matter (and his own puns), writing, “It’s another pore excuse for a lawsuit. We believe this is another frivolous lawsuit brought by a competitor nervous about our superior technology. I would like to assure all our customers that this and other actions will not disrupt our commercial operations.”
  • April 2017 – ONT hit back at PacBio with their own lawsuit in the European courts, titled ‘Molecular and Atomic Scale Evaluation of Biopolymers.’
  • May 2017 – ONT hold their annual conference, London Calling 2017. Amongst a whole host of new announcements (and the hugely impressive smartphone sequencing), ONT’s CTO Clive Brown reveals the move from 2D sequencing to 1D2 sequencing, which was said to combine the simple preparation stage of 1D sequencing and the accuracy of 2D.
  • May 2017 – A released document reveals that many of the disputed claims in PacBio’s lawsuits have been ruled in favour of ONT.
  • September 2017 – PacBio launch their third lawsuit against ONT, this time with a claim that will cover both 2D and 1D2 sequencing. Neither company has commented. 

Edit: Shortly after the publication of this article, Oxford Nanopore Technologies released the following statement:

“PacBio is suing us on patents which they don’t use. We consider it a meritless suit and anti-competitive patent trolling”.