'False claim' dispute pits research against industry

March 2, 2001

Australia's Securities and Investment Commission has launched an investigation into a leading academic's complaints about claims made by a university-linked biotechnology company.

The commission is due to decide next week in the battle between science and commerce, which involves one of Australia's most prestigious research institutions.

Biotron, a biotechnology start-up company, has the rights to six projects at the John Curtin School of Medical Research -a research arm of the Australian National University in Canberra.

In January, Graeme Laver, a virus specialist and visiting fellow at the school, lodged a complaint against Biotron with the commission. He alleged the company had made false claims in its prospectus about research relating to the development of an anti-viral agent and its ability to block ion channels.

Dr Laver, who won the 1996 Australia Prize for research into the influenza virus, said the application of the ion channel technology to such viruses as Ross River, Barmah Forest and dengue fevers -proposed in the prospectus -was not generally accepted in the scientific community.

The scientist responsible for the research, Peter Gage, is a consultant with Biotron. He said the prospectus information was correct.

JCSMR director Judith Whitworth has circulated a memorandum to staff saying: "I can't over-emphasise how negative bad publicity is -with government, with industry and with our scientific peers who sit on granting bodies."

She said the issue had "crystallised people's views at the school on the difficult balance in research for the public good and commercial interests".

"We are here to do research for the public good but certainly where there are commercial opportunities, we want to capture those benefits for Australia," she added.

Professor Whitworth has approached the Australian Vice-Chancellor's Committee and the National Health and Medical Research Council for collaboration on a set of guidelines on the ethical commercialisation of research.

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