BioWorld International Correspondent

SYDNEY, Australia - Two Australian organizations are battling over the patent rights to the gene-silencing technology called RNA interference that increasingly is being used by biotech researchers around the world.

A government industrial research organization called the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) Plant Industry, based in Sydney, has lodged an "opposition" to a patent application to the Australian Patent Office filed jointly by Brisbane-based Benitec Ltd. and a state government organization, the Queensland State Government's Department of Primary Industries.

CSIRO Plant Industry issued a statement last week stating that it had filed oppositions to the Benitec/Queensland department patent application as well as to a UK application by Syngenta Ltd., part of the Syngenta group based in Basel, Switzerland. The Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh also filed patents around the same time as CSIRO filed in Australia, in 1998.

Rob Defeyter, a researcher at CSIRO Plant Industry, said that Benitec was the first to the Australian Patent Office by about three weeks, but its opposition application states that one of the scientists involved with the Benitec application had worked for CSIRO and, as a result, the organization is the rightful owner of the Benitec application.

He said that the next step was for the Australian Patent Office to make a ruling, but the issue may take years to resolve.

Ken Reed, director of research and technology at Benitec, confirmed that an opposition to the patent application has been lodged, despite attempts to reach a settlement.

"It's disappointing that we've been unable to reach a settlement after two years," he said.

The technology at the heart of the dispute involves using RNA interference (RNAi) to switch off selected genes. When pieces of double-stranded RNA are introduced into a cell, the cell's natural defense mechanisms attack both the RNA and the corresponding piece of single-strand messenger RNA, which link genes with the cellular machinery for producing proteins.

By carefully selecting the pieces of double-strand RNA, researchers can switch off individual genes, making the technique a powerful means of investigating genomes. As a result it is coming into wide use among researchers.

Defeyter said that commercial applications are to be expected.

Material produced by both the CSIRO and Benitec lay claim to being the first to demonstrate the principle of RNA interference. The CSIRO release states that the technique was conceived and developed at the CSIRO plant industry in 1994.

A further complication in any patent dispute is that the various patent applications cover different aspects of the technology, including applications in plants, mammals and humans.

The main reason for last week's release by CSIRO was to announce that it has developed gene-silencing vectors (the segments of RNA) for "thousands of genes" that are available free to not-for-profit organizations for research use.