BioWorld International Correspondent

SYDNEY, Australia - The chairman of Melbourne-based Genetic Technologies Ltd. hit out at an accusation by leading U.S. genetic researcher Francis Collins that his company is hampering researchers by charging for access to patents.

Mervyn Jacobson said that his listed company charged research scientists a "peppercorn" fee of US$1,000 for the rights to use GT's patented series of techniques and methods for investigating the noncoding, or "junk," DNA part of the genome.

An amount that small would "mean nothing" to scientists and is only fair considering that scientists had to pay for all other parts of the research effort, and much of even pure biotech research now has some commercial purpose. Why, he said, should the intellectual property part of the research mix be considered free?

"Do they expect to get their labs free of charge; do they expect to get their lab assistants free of charge?" Jacobson said.

He also noted that he charged academic and commercial researchers very different rates. For example, in a recent GT deal with the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, he charged an academic research lab just US$1,000 for a license, and a commercial research operation at the same university US$75,000. If a commercial product results from the research then the laboratories concerned would then have to negotiate a commercial license.

Jacobson is responding to accusations made by Collins, of the National Human Genome Research Institute and one of the leaders in sequencing the human genome, at the International Congress of Genetics held in Melbourne last week, and later repeated on Australian national television.

In a current affairs program on the government-owned television channel ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission), Collins said: "If a patent owner is charging fees to academic researchers, some of them aren't going to be able to afford it and they will basically then not be able to do that line of research. That is why traditionally academic researchers have been considered exempt from the need to pay royalties or get licenses.

"Its not just about the actual fee or the royalty. It's the principle, because once one starts down this path of accepting the idea that basic science academic researchers are going to have to deal with these legal requirements and fees, the likelihood is that they will escalate," Collins said.

Bob Williamson, director of the Murdoch Children's Research Institute in Melbourne, said on the program that making researchers apply for licenses could lead to less scientific research, particularly into diseases such as cystic fibrosis and ataxia.

For his part, Jacobson told BioWorld International that very little research in biotechnology is now solely for scientific reasons. Even when the initial aim is academic inquiry there is likely to be some form of commercial outcome or spin-off.

He said that financial figures released by U.S. research institutions indicated that they were making a great deal of money from patents generated by what would normally be considered pure research.