Neurologist Susan Greenfield has defended her action in patenting "an idea" that a fragment of a naturally occurring brain molecule could hold the key to treating Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, writes Kam Patel.
Professor Greenfield, who is based at Oxford University, said: "What we have not done is patent the molecule. What we have patented is its use, what we think it might be doing. It is more an idea. We do not own the fragment at all."
Professor Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, and co-founder of Oxford spin-out Synaptica, rejected concerns that her patent will prevent or slow down similar lines of research by other groups around the world.
The patent is based on a novel function of a fragment of the molecule, called acetylcholinesterase (AChE), which Synaptica believes is implicated in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's by its effect on cell growth.
"Our patent would not knock out other research activity in the area at all. What we have patented is not something that we have sole rights over. We do not, and do not claim to have, exclusive rights to any parts of the molecule," said Professor Greenfield.
She assumed her team was the only one pursuing the line of research that had led to the patent. "We would not have been granted the patent otherwise."
Professor Greenfield said her idea about AChE dates back 20 years to when the consensus was that the molecule was merely a curiosity. "At first people did not believe it had novel functions and when they did, they said it did not matter. I feel very pleased that my research is finally bearing fruit."
Professor Greenfield said many scientists were increasingly having to make tough decisions between sticking to "risk averse" public sector funding for research and seeking private sector funding for more speculative research that can often involve patenting.
She stressed, however, the long-term nature of her work. "There is only a very tiny chance it will get to the market in 10 to 20 years."