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Broad Clients Engaged in Lawsuit Research Lab May Become Unable To Distribute Molecular Discoveries

By Stephen Heuser

Just over a year ago, Cambridge’s prestigious Broad Institute started an idealistic medical-research project, fueled by millions of dollars from drug companies, to create powerful new molecules and make them cheaply available to lab researchers around the world.

Called the RNAi Consortium, the program runs on donations from Novartis AG,Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., and Eli Lilly & Co., among others. It has designed a huge collection of molecules to block the workings of each human gene - a new and increasingly important technique for scientists and drug makers. The project embodies the ambitious goals of the three-year-old Broad Institute, which united the czars of top science labs at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to turn genetic research into real treatments for diseases.

But now the altruistic RNAi project has run into the shoals of commerce.

The Broad relies on two for-profit companies to produce and distribute the new molecules to researchers, and one of those companies is suing the other to stop it from sending them out.

Sigma-Aldrich Corp., a global lab supply company based in St. Louis, filed suit against Open Biosystems Inc. of Alabama, a private firm specializing in supplying genetic material, charging that it infringes two key scientific patents.

Although the Broad Institute invents the RNAi molecules, it can’t produce them in the volume needed for research experiments. So it has licensed the two suppliers to keep a ready stock of Broad-invented material in their warehouse freezers to sell to customers. The companies make a profit, but because the Broad Institute absorbs the high cost of the original research, they can keep prices down for their customers.

If the lawsuit succeeds in shutting down Open Biosystems, it would give Sigma an effective monopoly, leading scientists to worry that a resource built with philanthropic money and intended for public access would become unaffordable.

“Our goal is easy access to the world research community,” said David Root, the Broad Institute scientist who manages the RNAi Consortium. “We went to two distributors with the idea of trying to make sure it’s widely available.”

Open Biosystems denies it violates any patents, and has continued to ship the Broad Institute molecules.

The suit illustrates an emerging challenge for supporters of publicly accessible medical research: Patents and intellectual property in the life sciences have grown so valuable that they are jealously guarded as potential keys to millions of dollars in revenue.

“You have this situation where you’re doing research and you don’t really know who owns what you’re doing anymore,” said John Quackenbush, a genetic-data researcher at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

It also pits two very different companies against each other. With offices around the world, Sigma-Aldrich is one of the largest suppliers of laboratory research chemicals, with 7,000 employees and $1.7 billion in annual sales. It has a growing business in so-called biotechnology reagents, highly specialized chemicals that let laboratories use the new tools of genomics to test potential drugs. It was also one of the original $3.6 million donors to the Broad Institute’s RNAi project.