WASHINGTON _ Facing continued reductions infederal funding, research-intensive universities areexpected to become more aggressive in their negotiationswith biotech firms over proprietary rights, a prominenthealth researcher said.
David Blumenthal, former health advisor to presidentialcandidate Michael Dukakis and current director of healthpolicy research at Massachusetts General Hospital inBoston, has assessed the current relationship of academiaand the biotechnology industry and found it successful.Blumenthal is researching the topic under a grant fromthe Department of Health and Human Services.
But cutbacks in federal biomedical research funding arepressuring universities to look to biotech patent rights asnew funding opportunities, Blumenthal said in aninterview with BioWorld Today.
"There are now areas of conflict between universities andthe biotech sector that are more pronounced than theywere a decade ago," said Blumenthal. "There is moreclarity on the universities' side that they want to ownpatent rights to products developed under their auspices."
Blumenthal cited a 1992 survey of the 150 academicinstitutions belonging to the Association of UniversityTechnology Managers which found that their totalreceipts from biotech royalties in that year alone exceeded$250 million and were growing at a rate of 20 to 30percent a year. That income compares with a survey ofacademic/industry relationships from 1989 through 1990which found that universities realized total income of$113 million.
"This new level of aggressiveness over proprietaryinterests has led some biotech executives to walk awayfrom negotiations over patent rights," he told BioWorldToday.
But he maintained that overall the biotechnology industryand academia remain intertwined. Universities continueto provide services such as research or training orintellectual knowledge in the form of patents or licenses.In return, they receive from industry research support,honoraria, consulting fees, royalties or equity.
The number of strategic alliances between universitiesand biotech companies is expected to continue toflourish. "The research relationship between academicsand biotech scientists has increased in frequency duringthe past decade," he said. Blumenthal said it was hisimpression that scientific knowledge may be movingquickly out of the university into biotech labs "becauseuniversities have found it hard to internalize theknowledge they develop."
Universities may seek to make their relationships with theindustry more explicit to avoid what Blumenthal calledthe "stickiness" of faculty participation in start-up biotechcompanies. "The top universities in terms of dollarsrealized from patents and collaborative agreements aremoving aggressively to own what comes out of theirlabs," he said.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, StanfordUniversity, University of Wisconsin and University ofCalifornia all have "made a great deal of money onpatents," said Blumenthal. Others, such as Johns HopkinsUniversity, have made an explicit commitment to fosterstart-up biotech companies in which the universityparticipates directly. The Johns Hopkins teachinghospital, intent on replacing dwindling federal dollarswith biotech royalties, was an important impetus behindmaking the university more proactive in its relationshipswith biotech firms, Blumenthal said.
By engaging in such unbridled entrepreneurship,Blumenthal pointed out, universities "may lose theirperception as sources of impartial, disinterestedknowledge that deserve public support and the freedom touse that knowledge as they see fit," Blumenthal wrote inHealth Affairs, a health services research quarterly.
Blumenthal chided the biotech industry for not being amore stalwart proponent of federal biomedical researchfunding. "They have not expressed themselves as vocallyas they should have because they benefit enormouslyfrom the resources that Congress has created." n
-- Michele L. Robinson Washington Editor
(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.