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Hairpin turn: Sigma sues Open Biosystems
ST. LOUIS—Late last week, Sigma-Aldrich, Oxford BioMedica and Open Biosystems, announced they reached a confidential settlement of their patent litigation regarding the by Open Biosystems of it shRNAmire library. Sigma-Aldrich and Oxford BioMedica agreed to dismiss the lawsuit brought against Open Biosystems. Open Biosystems agreed to dismiss its counterclaims in the lawsuit. As part of the settlement Open Biosystems will acquire certain license rights under the Oxford BioMedica patents for use of the LentiVector technology in research activities.
ST. LOUIS—The lawsuit filed in June by Sigma-Aldrich against Open Biosystems to block the sale of its Lentiviral shRNAmir Library to the RNAi research community marks not just a simple case of one company looking to defend its patent estate, but also raises issues surrounding public-private collaborations intends to hasten research and development activities in specific scientific areas.
On the face of the action, the lawsuit is nothing more than testing the limits of patents held or licensed by one company. In this case, Sigma-Aldrich contends that the Open Biosystems' lentiviral library infringes one or more patents entitled Lentiviral LTS Deleted Vector, held by U.K.-based Oxford BioMedica and licensed for research use by Sigma-Aldrich in October of 2005.
But left standing in the middle of the dispute is The RNAi Consortium (TRC), a public-private collaboration organized by MIT's Broad Institute two years ago, whose purpose was to create RNAi libraries of the human and mouse genomes with the intent to contain the cost of these materials while gaining wide distribution. Using this model, TRC hoped to accelerate research in this area.
"Our intention was to make the library, the methodologies and approaches as widely accessible as possible to accelerate research in this area," says David Root, project leader for TRC.
To achieve this, TRC has provided the lentiviral shRNA library to both Sigma-Aldrich and Open Biosystems, who in turn clone the materials to make it ready for sale to researchers. Should Sigma-Aldrich prevail in its lawsuit, it will effectively have a monopoly on the lentiviral material supplied to it by TRC. The intent, all along, Root notes was to have more than one distribution channel.
"Our feeling was that the surest way to ensure availability is to maintain multiple distribution partners," Root says. Still, he notes, that doesn't necessarily mean Sigma-Aldrich—which is also one of the original TRC donors—would take advantage of the situation by raising prices. "Our hope is that they would take an approach that mirrors the intent of TRC," he says.
Officially, TRC has not taken sides in the dispute. "We'd rather it was resolved soon," Root notes. "Our interest is in there being no disruption of the distribution."
For its part, Open Biosystems, a four-year-old, privately held company based in Huntsville, Ala., has stated publicly that it will vigorously defend its right to distribute its lentiviral shRNA products.
"Our products absolutely do not infringe on their patents," says Troy Moore, CTO of Open Biosystems. "I think this is more of a case of them being a big company targeting a smaller competitor who has made decent in-roads in the market."
From Sigma-Aldrich's standpoint, it is merely trying to protect IP it has either created or licensed surrounding its own RNAi business.
While Sigma-Aldrich did not return calls seeking comment, in a story published in The Boston Globe, Keith Jolliff, strategic marketing director for Sigma-Aldrich's biotechnology business, said his company supports the work and the mission of TRC. But the lawsuit was filed as a means to protect the money it has invested in its RNAi program.
"There's no point in having patents if you're not going to enforce them," he said in the Globe.
Meanwhile, researchers everywhere are hoping there can be a happy end to this story, one that will still allow for the wide and inexpensive distribution of the lentiral shRNA library.