Royalties coup boosts science

October 28, 2005

An intellectual property rights agreement worth £144 million has been clinched by the Medical Research Council. Anna Fazackerley reports

The Medical Research Council this week sealed one of world's biggest-ever intellectual property deals, bringing British research out of the heavy shadow cast by the US.

After months of negotiation, the US pharmaceutical company Abbott has agreed to pay $255 million (£144 million) in lieu of future royalties for Humira, a treatment for arthritis developed using technology derived from research at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge and the Scripps Research Institute in California.

The MRC will receive $191 million from this deal, with additional royalties taking the sum closer to $240 million. This will be placed in the MRC's overall funding pot, which is currently £500 million a year.

Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the MRC, told The Times Higher: "This is probably the biggest commercial research success anywhere in the world and certainly in Europe. We will be ploughing all the money back into science for the future."

He added: "This is a real vindication of long-term investment in basic science."

Nick Winterton, the council's executive director, said that the MRC's priority in exploiting intellectual property was to find ways of turning basic research into health benefits for people.

But the deal was heralded this week as the first major signal that the UK was beginning to emulate the US's more aggressive business style. It will go some way to redressing frustration over famous missed opportunities of the past.

Professor Winterton said: "There is a feeling that we don't do as well in this area as the US. When people see this they will realise that that perception is wrong." He added: "Compared with the MRC's approach 20 or 30 years ago, this is a complete sea change."

The patents exploited in the deal centre on Sir Gregory Winter's development in the mid-1980s of human monoclonal antibodies - custom-made protein molecules that home in on specific targets, which have been dubbed "magic bullets". Historically, this is highly significant.

Monoclonal antibodies were first developed in rats and mice by Cesar Milstein and his colleagues at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

Although Milstein's team won a Nobel prize for the work in 1984, it has long been held up as one of the great commercial failures in British science.

The breakthrough led to the development of therapeutic products for breast cancer, leukaemia, asthma and transplant rejection. Many have argued that Britain should have earned billions from the invention.

But the researchers decided to publish their results before taking out a patent. As late as 1993, a government paper suggested that a patent based on this work would be "premature".

Once in the public domain it was too late - the work could no longer claim patent protection and reap the profits.

Peter Cotgreave, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said: "It is amazing to think that the Government told the MRC that there was no commercial potential for this work.

"There has clearly been a problem of not being able to see the wood for the trees and identifying how science can be of use. Clearly, the whole public-sector science community has not been very on the ball about this."

But he added: "Put crudely, the Americans are just naturally better at this. They have the go-get-'em positive attitude we often lack. We won't become American overnight."

However, Richard Henderson, director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, said that Humira was not the only monoclonal antibody drug that Britain was profiting from.

He said that regular smaller royalties were coming in from three other treatments - the breast cancer drug Herceptin, the cancer drug Avastin, and Synagis, a treatment for respiratory syncytial virus.

But he said: "All these drugs are still manufactured in America. The UK has a long way to go."

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