March 23, 2011-Two patents for a new approach to the treatment of disease leave out the contribution made by a University of Utah biochemist to this important discovery. The University of Utah, represented by Pepper Hamilton LLP, is asking for redress in a lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts.
RNA interference (RNAi) is a natural biological process that involves double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) molecules whose role is to turn off, or fine-tune, messaging molecules that carry genetic instructions. As testament to the importance of this pathway, in 2006 Drs. Andrew Fire and Craig Mello were jointly awarded a Nobel Prize for the discovery of RNAi. The technology in the patent harnesses the RNAi pathway and uses short dsRNA molecules to turn off specific messaging molecules, in some cases those that lead to the production of disease-causing proteins. The technology is far-reaching, ultimately allowing the creation of a major new class of medicines, known as RNAi therapeutics.
The legal action identifies the University of Utah as the plaintiff in the case and seeks reparation against defendants Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, Max-Planck-Innovation GmbH, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Massachusetts.
The University’s position is that University of Utah biochemist Brenda Bass conceived an essential part of the structure of the small dsRNA molecules that elicit RNAi. The structures are at the ends of the molecule and referred to as “3′ overhangs”.
Dr. Bass’s discovery was transmitted to the Alnylam named inventor and at least another working with him, who prior to that point were unaware of the terminal 3′ overhangs. It is the University’s position that the defendants have obligations to disclose Dr. Bass as an inventor to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which would result in co-ownership rights in the patents to the University.
The University of Utah is issuing this information as background for the basis of its complaint. It does not intend to comment further until a court decision has been reached.