A recent hearing in Boston’s federal court over a patent dispute involving a University of Utah (U of U) researcher marks the continuation of a long-standing, heated dispute concerning a technology that has yet to yield a single marketable product.
U of U researcher Brenda Bass, who filed the current lawsuit, claims she communicated her ideas on a class of double-stranded RNA molecules known as siRNA, which could potentially be used to neutralize disease-causing genes, to a group of scientists led by Thomas Tuschl. According to the suit, Tuschl allegedly published a paper on the use of siRNA in drug development using the idea Bass had first arrived at.
If Bass prevails in the dispute, around 10 patents could be modified to include the U of U researcher as a co-inventor. Although the technology has yet to yield a treatment for a single patient, all the parties involved, which have spent collective millions on legal fees over the research, agree that it could turn out to be one of the most transformative drug discovery technologies in a generation.
“This is revolutionary research in the biomedical area,” says John Leavitt, a retired life sciences consultant and molecular biologist who has followed the case closely. “You can use siRNA to target all genes, whether they’re on the surface of cells or inside the cells. There are roughly 20,000 to 25,000 genes in a cell, and you can theoretically target any one of them using this technology. It lets you target genes that were previously considered undruggable.”
In the trial, a powerful roster of companies and universities including MIT, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Germany’s Max Planck Institutes and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc., the company that licensed the siRNA technology, insist that Bass doesn’t merit “joint inventorship” status, which would give licensing rights to her university or entitle it to royalties from the billions of dollars in sales that could result from commercialization of the siRNA research.
Nicolas S. Boebel, an attorney representing the U of U in the trial, comments, “The core of our argument is that what Dr. Tuschl used in his experiments to confirm the activity of the siRNA was a structure that he learned from Dr. Bass.”
The stakes are particularly high for Anlylam, which has yet to win its first drug approval around siRNA but commands a stock market value of over $9 billion based on expectations among investors that the technology will lead to multiple breakthrough therapies.
“Patents are an important part of our business,” says Anlylam CEO John Maraganore. “We believe in the merits of our case, and we’ll continue to pursue the legal process.”
Source: The Boston Globe