B vitamin deficiencies can cause a range of serious health effects, including spinal defects in children born to women with below-normal levels of folic acid and anemia in people not getting enough B12.
That's why a two-step method of diagnosing those deficiencies that three medical school doctors patented in 1990 has become so widely used. It's performed tens of millions of times a year, at a cost of just a dollar or two, by laboratory testing companies nationwide.
Now, to the surprise of patent attorneys, a case involving one of those companies, sued after it stopped paying some royalties, has landed in the Supreme Court, where arguments will be heard Tuesday.
Even more surprising is that the Supreme Court may dredge up a bombshell question not asked when the lower courts considered the case: Have inventors been busy patenting laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas?
At stake, attorneys on both sides of the case say, are 25 years of patent law and literally tens of thousands of patents on drugs, medical devices, computer software and other inventions. If the court reins in what can be patented, they say, it could be among the most important patent law decisions ever made.