Pharmaceutical tie-up rekindles battle for academics' rights, reports Melanie Newman.
An academic who made a discovery worth more than $1 billion (£500 million) a year to the pharmaceutical industry is suing University College London for unlimited damages, claiming the university has denied him a proper share of the spoils.
Geoffrey Goldspink, emeritus professor of anatomy at the Royal Free and UCL Medical School, claims UCL and its technology spin-off company, UCL Business, withheld his full share of earnings from his ground-breaking discovery of a substance that repairs damaged muscle.
He also alleges that the university stopped his vital research by closing down his laboratory. UCL strongly denies the claims.
Professor Goldspink, who has spent more than 35 years researching the development of muscle tissue, has cloned a gene that increases production of "mechano growth factor" (MGF). MGF activates muscle stem cells and promotes muscle growth. The research suggests it may repair damage caused by heart attacks, reduce muscle loss related to ageing and help treat muscle-wasting illnesses such as motor neurone disease. Bodybuilders already use it.
According to particulars of the claim filed at the High Court on August 15, UCL Business Plc employed Professor Goldspink as a consultant and director of a research project on MGF. The company later signed an agreement with a multinational pharmaceutical company for the exploitation of MGF, which envisaged annual global sales of the drug of more than $1 billion.
In March 2006, UCL Business terminated its contract with the professor, according to the claim. It made his international research team redundant and ordered his laboratory mice to be killed.
Three months later, a UCL business director wrote in an e-mail to a patient that the work was "being continued under a commercial agreement with a large pharmaceutical company".
Professor Goldspink is seeking unlimited damages. He claims the company had no right to terminate his research and that his contract entitles him to per cent of income resulting from MGF patents. He alleges that while UCL Business had received more than $1.25 million from the drugs company, it has failed to pay all the money owing to him.
A spokesman said: "UCL does not accept the claim being made by Professor Goldspink. We regret that he has seen fit to pursue it through the courts, and we intend to contest it vigorously."
Professor Goldspink said that the intellectual property resulting from his life's work was now "locked up" in the university and the pharmaceutical company. "MGF has great potential for the alleviation of muscle loss in motor neurone disease, muscular dystrophy and age-related frailty as well as muscle wasting in cancer, HIV and renal disease," he said.
"Money is a secondary motivation for me, but this would appear to be the only way to highlight this issue. It pains me to know that am I unable to respond to the numerous patients who continue to ask me for help.
"It worries me that in this country academics cannot keep control of their inventions while ensuring they are used on a commercial scale and applied to sufferers."
Others have questioned universities' deals with industry. Earlier this year, researchers at Imperial College London called on academic institutions to keep their intellectual property rights and develop drugs themselves rather than sell to "big pharma". Sunil Shaunak and his team altered the molecular structure of an existing hepatitis C drug to skirt its patent protection; the university plans to manufacture the drug in India.
This month Manchester University announced plans to set up a joint £50 million research investment fund with commercial fund manager MTI Partners.