Strings pulled in patent dispute

May 26, 2000

Columbia University has asked a US senator and former student to help clear the way to extend a profitable patent on a biotechnology process it developed. Without a change in the patent law, Columbia risks losing $100 million a year in royalties.

But critics complain that the school is trying secretly to bypass the usual public hearings. They include pharmaceutical companies that say they would be forced to continue paying the university a percentage of their sales if the change in patent law is approved.

They say that the patent resulted from research paid for entirely by the federal government. The university has already collected $280 million in royalties.

Columbia was granted a patent in 1983 for a process called "co-transformation", which allows animal cells to manufacture proteins used as drugs to treat such conditions as breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. Thirty-four companies have so far developed 14 drugs using the process.

The university receives 1 per cent of sales, worth $100 million a year. But because it made no money during the five years the drugs were being reviewed by the federal Food and Drug Administration, it wants to be allowed a corresponding five-year extension on its patent.

Columbia alumnus senator Judd Gregg, a member of the powerful appropriations committee, is supporting his former university.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization and the National Pharmaceutical Alliance have opposed Columbia's bid for a patent extension.

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