Bio start-up is in the clear

April 6, 2001

Two complaints made against a biotechnology start-up company associated with the Australian National University have been rejected.

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission found no evidence of any material breach of the Corporations Law when it investigated claims made in the prospectus of Biotron, a Canberra-based firm recently listed on the stock exchange. It owns the commercial rights to six projects at the university's research arm, the John Curtin School of Medical Research, and is valued at A$12 million (about £4 million).

The company had been subject to two complaints relating to research on an anti-viral agent and its ability to block ion channels in viruses such as Ross River fever.

One of the complaints was from a private investor, the other was from a visiting fellow at the JCSMR, Graeme Laver, who questioned the scientific foundation for the claim about ion channels - a field in which he has worked extensively.

Professor Laver said he was not surprised the complaints were eventually rejected, as it was difficult to prosecute a company for breaching the Corporations Law.

"But I still feel very angry that Biotron was set up by people in the John Curtin School using its reputation to do a number of projects that seem to me to be dubious and one of which contained allegations that weren't substantiated," he said.

Professor Laver said the question was why the ANU approved the company without testing the science.

Deputy vice-chancellor John Richards said the university had undertaken a due diligence examination of Biotron through the independent biotechnology valuer Acuity Technology Management. He said the review noted that some of the areas of Biotron's research were speculative "but that is the nature of technology."

Professor Richards said a system of peer review was inappropriate for research within commercial companies, but the independent assessment was "as close to peer review as you can get" and he was happy with the process.

Peter Gage, the scientist behind the research and a consultant with Biotron, described the past few weeks as "a minor hiccup" based on "a lack of understanding of commercial realities".

Noting that commercialisation of scientific research in Australia was relatively new, he said "I think universities are going to have to address a lot of problems relating to issues such as these, and perhaps this will make them more aware".

The JCSMR is formulating guidelines for the future commercialisation of its research.

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