Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Nobel Prize winning science –creates a biotech industry, Enterprise Tuesday 19th January 2010

Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT) was founded in the dying days of 1989 to develop human therapeutic antibodies. The early stages were difficult; the underlying science was only half done, and the large pharmaceutical companies and most investors did not believe that antibodies were viable drugs, although now it is an industry with a turnover of more than $25 bn per annum. Sir Gregory Winter (a founder) and Dr Kevin Johnson (an early recruit) will piece together the founding, and the development of the science and business of CAT, including the early development of the blockbuster drug HumiraTM directed against rheumatoid arthritis."
The story behind CAT though is just as fascinating and as background here is my attempt to summarize.
The creation of the business and the biotech industry goes back to a major misunderstanding about intellectual property ownership and its exploitation.
One of the articles is about who is at the heart of the nobel prize (1984) winning science – Milstein or Kohler? ( We certainly hear about this issue from many graduates and others who are anxious about how much of their new ideas they feel they can share openly. Ownership of the idea that then leads to a discovery or to a business that succeeds is close to the heart of individuals. And how this ownership of the discovery is subsequently commercialised is also an important debate for Universities, individual researchers, the venture capitalists and management teams.
The other part of the controversy is whether or not it was smart to publish and “give away” cell lines and the mice to those who might be competitors. This is a more serious argument and some think that the patenting regime can be stifling and restrictive to the ultimate benefits of society.
There are probably three major themes to this debate. First – whether all new knowledge generated through public funding actually belongs to society anyway – in which case it should be published for wider dissemination and this includes any commercial exploitation. The second line of argument has been that the way patenting and licensing is done – starts to become increasingly defensive and is a broken system and therefore acts against the best interests of what it is actually supposed to encourage. The third is simply that unless one has a system that can be understood the capital and resources from organisations that have the capability to commercialise the science will just not do so.
I am not knowledgeable enough to fully comment on this third aspect – but it seems to me that if the opportunity is big enough and the deals are there to be done, is the commercial exploitation not more to do with management and markets than about ring fencing the ownership of IP? In some industries now (e.g. internet) there is a greater push for open source and open innovation and in most technology clusters there is increasing collaborative working.
For those of us – who need to understand how or why this science is significant there is a layman’s description of the impact of monoclonal antibodies.

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