The fight against Alzheimer disease rallies warriors of many sorts—families caring for afflicted loved ones, scientists toiling late nights in the lab to unravel disease mechanisms, advocates lobbying for research funding, companies sponsoring clinical trials, participants volunteering their time. And don’t forget lawyers. For better or worse, they, too, play their part in the war against AD. A string of recent lawsuits filed against the use of well-established AD mouse models and other tools is keeping patent attorneys busy as it saps research time and dollars—again.

Researchers may recall a legal battle that erupted in the late 1990s between Elan Pharmaceuticals, Inc., headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, and the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Elan sued the Minnesota-based nonprofit, alleging that its use and distribution of Tg2576 mice infringed two company patents on transgenic animals expressing amyloid precursor protein (APP) with the Swedish mutation. Mayo made a counterclaim that Elan’s patents were invalid, touching off a protracted legal seesaw that included a U.S. District Court’s dismissal of the case, Elan’s appeal of the ruling, and an eventual agreement that restored the use of the transgenic models and other AD research tools by both parties in 2004 (see ARF related news story).

Though this five-year court drama appeared to end on a promising note, a controversial U.S. patent that helped fuel those proceedings continues to stir up trouble even today. Issued in 1995, this patent covers certain genetic sequences of human APP with the Swedish mutation (APPswe), i.e., nucleotide substitutions that change the lysine at codon 670 and methionine at codon 671, and that cause early onset familial AD. In 1996, the Mayo Foundation secured a license for this and related patents when it began breeding and distributing Karen Hsiao Ashe’s Tg2576 mice, which overexpress APPswe (Hsiao et al., 1996). The license agreement helped convince a district court judge in San Francisco nearly a decade ago that Elan’s patents on APPswe mice were invalid since they covered technology anticipated by the earlier APPswe patent Mayo had been allowed to use.

This patent was issued to the Alzheimer’s Institute of America (AIA), based in Kansas City, Kansas, and is set to expire in 2012. The patent lists just one inventor—Michael Mullan, who heads the Roskamp Institute and Archer Pharmaceuticals, both in Sarasota, Florida. As a doctoral student in John Hardy’s lab at Imperial College, London, who finished his dissertation at the University of South Florida, Tampa, Mullan was part of the collaboration that discovered the APP Swedish mutation (Mullan et al., 1992).

Now in its final years of life, this AIA patent, along with several others Mullan was granted and sold to AIA, is back at the center of heated litigation. In a lawsuit [.pdf] filed in February and amended in March 2010 in the Northern District of California, AIA is suing Elan and six other parties for infringement of patents on APPswe and its use in mice, cells, and other research tools. The other defendants include Eli Lilly and Company, Indianapolis, Indiana; AnaSpec, Inc., Fremont, California; Immuno-Biological Laboratories, Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota; Phoenix Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Burlingame, California; American Peptide Company, Inc., Sunnyvale, California; and The Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor, Maine. AIA alleges that Elan and Lilly have used AIA-patented technology in their AD research and drug discovery efforts. The lawsuit cites several company-owned U.S. patents (e.g., Elan’s 7,553,831 and 7,514,408; Lilly’s 7,585,885) that describe the use of assays, cell lines, and animal models including the APP Swedish mutation. The other named companies face infringement charges related to their sale of APPswe-containing peptide sequences and other reagents.

Last summer, AIA filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California with similar charges of APPswe patent infringement. The defendants in that suit are the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF), a nonprofit research institution based in Oklahoma City, and CoMentis, a South San Francisco biotech company trying to develop a BACE inhibitor (see ARF related conference story; OMRF general counsel Adam Cohen told ARF the case has since been moved to Oklahoma, where it is pending in federal court.

Even a nonprofit AD mouse repository has been dragged into the latest lawsuit filed this year. Along with its charges against the pharmaceutical and biotech companies, AIA is suing The Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor, Maine, for use and sale of 22 transgenic strains carrying the APPswe mutation. “It's sad this is happening,” David Einhorn, Jackson’s house counsel, told ARF. “We’re a nonprofit distributing mice to academic and nonprofit institutions for research use in an effort to cure this devastating disease.”

In a phone interview, Einhorn and Mike Sasner, manager of Jackson’s AD model repository, emphasized that despite the pending litigation, distribution of mouse models will continue as usual. “We are confident The Jackson Laboratory does not infringe any valid patent claim asserted by AIA. We have a commitment to the research community to make these mice available. We’re not going to change anything we’re doing. We’re continuing to distribute the mice we have,” Einhorn said. “But I’m concerned that, moving forward, people may be less willing to donate mice to our repository, or even to use AD mice because of the fear of being drawn into litigation.”

Truth be told, Jackson has had to fight for submissions of these mice to its AD repository for years. “All along, academic institutions have been reluctant to provide us their mice. It’s nothing new,” Einhorn said. This is unfortunate and ironic, as Jackson created its AD repository in the year 2000 to make it easier for researchers to share and obtain mouse models that were at the time quite scarce. When publicly funded scientists create new strains, they have an obligation under U.S. government rules to make the mice available to other researchers. However, maintaining and distributing mice is time-consuming and expensive, and detracts from the lab’s scientific pursuits. Having Jackson Lab as a centralized distribution center would thus seem a win-win not only to the lab submitting the mouse, but also to research groups who receive the animals from a center that maintains some 5,000 strains under standardized care procedures.

That is how the scientists see it, but some of their institutions have felt hamstrung, or at least confused, by the complex patent landscape surrounding research tools involving APPswe. As such, patents or pending patent litigation have impeded AD research for much of the past decade by making it hard to obtain key AD mouse models or to make new ones. At a 2003 workshop in Boston, university technology transfer officers, pharmaceutical companies, and research service providers met with the National Institutes of Health to discuss these very issues (see ARF related news story).

“The universities are understandably concerned about being sued,” Einhorn said. “In at least one instance, we understand that submission of an APPswe strain was delayed because the technology transfer office at the investigator’s institution received a patent threat from AIA demanding a substantial license fee.” Reluctant to meet those demands, Einhorn said, the institution “took some years, and some courage, to decide to send us the mice.”

When asked about the situation via e-mail, the scientist who created that APPswe mouse and 13 others in Jackson’s AD repository declined comment. Alzforum contacted all defendants named in the 2009 and 2010 AIA lawsuits for comment. An Elan media representative said Elan believes AIA’s claims are “meritless” and will “defend [its] interests in federal court in the Northern District of California.” The other defendants ignored calls or declined comment. Similarly, 11 academic scientists in the U.S. and Europe who otherwise contribute to Alzforum begged off from speaking about the lawsuits brought by AIA. Off the record, several deplored the litigation’s chilling effect on tool sharing, collaboration, and research progress in the AD field.

Another investigator who has donated strains to the JAX collection wrote ARF saying he “(doesn’t) really know much about AIA or the lawsuit and would feel uncomfortable saying much given the ongoing litigation.” This scientist also did not want to be named. In an e-mail, Sasner noted, “most scientists avoid or ignore the legal complications and let their tech transfer offices deal with them,” and hence said it was believable that the investigator knew little about the AIA. “I personally still don’t know much about the AIA,” Sasner wrote.

So what is the AIA? According to its website, AIA is a “leading not-for-profit research and development institution,” (accessed 16 June 2010). Also, according to the website, “for more than 20 years, AIA has been conducting groundbreaking Alzheimer’s research.” The website offers no description or examples of said research beyond a single sentence mentioning that “world-renowned scientists” led by Mullan “have played a major role in single-handedly discovering the technology known as the ‘Swedish mutation.’”

When asked about AIA by phone and by e-mail, Mullan wrote to ARF saying he has “no idea” whether the institution funds external research programs and whom it employs. He declined to discuss AIA and furthermore wrote that he prefers not to talk by phone “as lawsuits are underway and I am a witness in one case.”

On the phone with ARF, Lars Lannfelt of Sweden’s Uppsala University said that on 28 September 2009, he was in Stockholm to give witness testimony at a deposition for this lawsuit. “I was in a room all day with Mike Mullan, Ronald Sexton, and with lawyers from AIA and from the Mayo Clinic, who had flown in from the States for this occasion. It was very interesting,” Lannfelt said.

A website with information on businesses lists Sexton and Marjorie Curran as AIA officers. Sexton’s office is mentioned on the answering machine connected to the Florida phone number on AIA’s contact page.

Lee Marshall is a patent attorney in the St. Louis, Missouri, branch of Bryan Cave LLP, which is representing AIA in the current lawsuit. Marshall also declined to speak about AIA’s ownership, employees, or directors. He cited “reports of one of the defendants engaging former CIA agents to approach witnesses.” (This story on refers to a different legal matter.) Pfizer is one of the defendants charged with APPswe patent infringement in a separate lawsuit [.pdf] filed by AIA last June. Pfizer had no comment on the matter after repeated phone calls and e-mails to its media office.

Marshall did tell ARF via e-mail that AIA receives revenues from licensing of APPswe patents and has sponsored Mullan’s research at the Roskamp Institute and at Archer Pharmaceuticals. (As for federal funding, the NIH grants tracking site RePORT lists one grant, in the amount of $270,015, going to Mullan in 2009. Recent Roskamp papers have cited support from the Department of Defense, two VA Merit awards, and the Alzheimer’s Association to institute scientists.)

Scientists familiar with AIA and its litigation told ARF that AIA has “done no scientific research” and describe it as an organization that supports Mullan and Sexton, his financial backer. Nature reported in a 2000 news story that shortly after Mullan arrived at the University of South Florida, Tampa, in 1992, he sold his APPswe patent rights to AIA, “a company set up by Kansas venture capitalist Ron Sexton, who had been funding Mullan’s work.” Marshall confirmed that AIA was incorporated in Florida in 1992, but also has a Kansas office.

If AIA has influenced science in any tangible fashion, it may well have been through its litigation, which dates back to the earlier part of the decade. In 2003, the year Mullan left the University of South Florida in Tampa amid an unrelated controversy (see St. Petersburg Times story), AIA sued the Mayo Foundation and Salt Lake City, Utah-based Myriad Pharmaceuticals in the District of Kansas for using APPswe-expressing cell lines. These cells, AIA argued, were not covered under the 1996 license Mayo obtained from AIA. Mayo then sued AIA in 2005 in an attempt to move jurisdiction to Florida to resolve the licensing dispute, and the cases were consolidated into a single suit in Florida. There, an arbitrator concluded that Mayo was not allowed to use the APPswe cell lines under the licensing agreement with AIA, and that AIA was not entitled to additional money for benefits Mayo received through third-party agreements. “This meant the AIA’s claims of infringement were still alive…and re-opened the case in federal court in late 2008,” said Sara Cotton, a patent lawyer at the Twin Cities, Minnesota, office of Fish and Richardson, which is representing Mayo in the case.

Both Mayo and Myriad “believe they do not infringe AIA’s patents (U.S. Patents 5,455,169 and 5,795,963),” Cotton noted in an e-mail to ARF. The companies contend that the AIA patents are “invalid because they are obvious, anticipated, indefinite, lack utility, are not enabled, fail to satisfy the written description requirement, and were procured through inequitable conduct,” she wrote.

Among other considerations, Mayo and Myriad cite improper inventorship as a prime reason AIA’s patents are invalid. The APPswe patents list Mullan as the sole inventor despite significant intellectual contribution from other scientists. Bengt Winblad and Lars Lannfelt of the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm (Lannfelt has since moved), co-identified the APPswe mutation in an extended Swedish family and are senior authors on the scientific paper (Mullan et al., 1992). According to Mayo’s and Myriad’s attorneys, Mullan knew Winblad and Lannfelt were claiming they should be co-inventors while the APPswe patent applications were still pending, yet failed to disclose this dispute to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Here is how Lannfelt recalled this period in a conversation with ARF: “In January of 1992, Bengt Winblad recruited me to work with families with inherited genetic diseases his group was assembling. I had experience with neurogenetics. I focused on two families from 300 kilometers north of Stockholm and started investigating them. But with just myself and a technician, we were underpowered, so I visited John Hardy in London the next month. John had published the London APP mutation the year before [Goate et al., 1991]. We decided to collaborate, but then John moved to Tampa and asked me to send my families’ DNA to Mike Mullan from his lab, who was already in Tampa. I did the clinical characterization of the families. For sequencing, we decided to divide up the gene. Mike would sequence exon 16, I exon 17. In April or May the mutation showed up in exon 16. Mike was first and I last author on the paper that came out in Nature Genetics in August of that year. This was fair. It was a good collaboration and I have never regretted it. Then Mike told me he was going to take out a patent and said you can only have one name on it. This was untrue. But in 1992, I knew nothing about patenting mutations.” When asked who contributed more to the discovery, Lannfelt said, “I would have found the mutation without Mullan, though later. He would never have found it without us.”

“Patents can certainly be held invalid if there was a failure to name correct inventors,” said Edward Reines, a Silicon Valley patent attorney at the firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges, which is not involved in the pending AIA litigation. He noted, however, that it is “not unusual at all” for patents to have a single inventor. Furthermore, inventorship claims can be hard to prove and are easily corrected (i.e., by adding the new inventors), all of which presents a “disfavor for the defense,” he said in a recent phone interview.

In the end, inventorship disputes may be trumped by a federal judge’s recent decision to invalidate patents on two different genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2), which are linked to breast and ovarian cancer. Last May, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit that challenged the validity of Myriad Genetics’ exclusive license to the genetic sequences of BRCA1 and BRCA2. On 29 March 2010—less than a year later—a U.S. district court judge sided with the ACLU and ruled the BRCA1 and BRCA2 patents had been “improperly granted.” (See New York Times story.) Myriad Genetics is expected to appeal the ruling. (Myriad Pharmaceuticals is a spin-off of Myriad Genetics, and both are parties in the ongoing AIA lawsuit.)

If the ACLU ruling is upheld, it could call into question the validity of patents covering thousands of other human genes, including the AIA patents at the center of pending litigation. “It’s going to create uncertainty in the law for the next year,” Reines said of the ACLU decision. “It presents issues that the appeals court will have to address.”

Confused already? It gets more convoluted. Reines noted that the appellate ruling could, in turn, be influenced by the Bilski case, for which a Supreme Court decision is expected in June 2010. The Bilski case addresses the patentability of a financial hedging scheme and, more broadly, what is considered patentable subject matter. The Bilski decision “has serious potential to affect [all patents], but it’s very likely to affect the process patent claims,” Reines said. “My guess is that in the long run, the gene patents are not going to survive, but the therapeutic or diagnostic patents will.”

The ACLU ruling may ultimately affect the standing of the AIA patents on APPswe; however, it primarily concerned the validity of gene patents for human testing in genetic diseases. On this separate issue, a special supplement of Genetics in Medicine, the Journal of The American College of Medical Genetics, just appeared. It is freely available online. One article in this supplement, by Robert Cook-Deegan at Duke University’s Center for Genome Ethics, Law and Policy in Durham, North Carolina, reviews the patent situation of all AD genes with regard to human testing, including APP, presenilin-1 and -2, and ApoE.

Thus far, it seems Mullan and others have found ways to capitalize on the U.S. patent law system. “When you have literally hundreds of patents out there, some overlapping, on pieces of naturally occurring human DNA…it’s a failure in the sense that so many patents have been granted over basically the same subject matter,” Einhorn told ARF, noting the universities are often wary for this reason. “How could anybody trying to exercise due diligence do so when you have overlapping claims? You could enter into a license with one party and still get sued by three others on patents that never should have been issued,” he said. “Unfortunately, what people do as a result is say, ‘Who needs the aggravation? There’s no simple solution. Let’s not even bother.’ The search for a cure for Alzheimer’s is the ultimate victim here.”

David Morgan of the University of South Florida, Tampa, a noted AD researcher who is not involved in the AIA lawsuits, agrees that a flawed patent law system is the real story here. “The lawyers are going to make money no matter what happens. Whether AIA wins or loses, there are lawyers everywhere who benefit. There’s no productive value in what they’re doing,” Morgan said. According to another scientist who refused identification due to involvement in the pending AIA suits, “this has got to be one of the nastiest things that has happened in the AD field.” Nevertheless, this person said Mullan “legitimately got these patents. I don’t fault the guy for insuring his intellectual property is safeguarded. The issue is how much is legitimate policing of IP and how much is disregard for scientific progress.”

Einhorn points out a certain irony in the AIA litigation, which charges 10 parties in three suits filed this year and last summer. “It is counterproductive for them to be suing The Jackson Laboratory,” he said. “If they really are interested in making money from the patent, they should want the mice to be used by the research world. Only then, with this basic research as a foundation, is there any hope for developing therapeutics and products. If nobody can get the mice, then you won’t get the therapeutics.” Einhorn notes that AIA is suing The Jackson Laboratory for 22 APPswe transgenic lines—“less than one half of 1 percent of the mouse strains we have. But now we have to deal with an expensive lawsuit.” Marshall, one of AIA’s attorneys, refused to comment on this issue, saying “it is generally not AIA's policy to comment about pending litigation.”

AIA is not alone in pursuing broad patent claims on AD mutations. Last fall, Elan got a patent approved in Europe for transgenic mice carrying any APP mutation associated with early onset AD. As it took the company nearly 18 years to gain approval, this patent expires in less than two years. In the meantime, some companies have stopped drug development studies with APP mice carrying Arctic and Swedish mutations. Elan had no comment on how, if at all, its recently issued European patent might influence U.S. legal proceedings.

Lost in the AD patent landscape? Wait, here’s one last twist. Frank LaFerla, University of California, Irvine, told ARF that submission of his triple-transgenic (3xTg AD) strain to The Jackson Lab was held up not up by AIA’s APPswe patents and associated litigation. Rather, his institution worried about submitting mice to JAX because of a Xenogen patent on the microinjection process for making any transgenic model. “Eventually, the Xenogen patent expired,” LaFerla said. “In the meantime, we distributed the mice ourselves at great cost.”

As for the ongoing AIA lawsuits, progress is unpredictable and slow going, but this is not unusual. “The way these things play out is not days or months, but years,” said Cohen of OMRF. “We’re still in a very, very early phase of litigation.” The suit involving OMRF and CoMentis is in a cumbersome period known as discovery, in which attorneys gather documents and witnesses from the named parties to make information available to the plaintiffs. Even for this lawsuit filed last summer, Cohen said, “there is no reasonable time when I could predict it will be over.”—Esther Landhuis and Gabrielle Strobel.


  1. Just to try and balance some of the pictures painted by the Landhuis/Strobel story:

    I'm referred to as being "a doctoral student in John Hardy's lab". (In passing, is the inference that being a doctoral student is an intellectually inferior position?). I was also a fully qualified medical physician seeing patients including those in the families where the first FAD APP mutations were found. I was also the group's linkage expert during those years of the discovery of the APP mutations. I had my own peer-reviewed funding which I brought to the department. I was a co-inventor on the London APP mutations as consensually agreed by the other members of the team, including Hardy, at that time due to my contributions, mostly of linkage analysis which confirmed the presence of mutations in the APP gene. The resulting patents had value and were licensed. Certain team members, including Hardy, benefited financially from the commercial licensing of those patents.

    I am clearly not a lawyer but it's my understanding that there is no intention nor was there ever any intention that academic institutions and academics should not have free access to the Swedish mutation. Clearly, there would be no controversy if this mutation was not widely regarded as an important model for AD and, as such, I do not know of any case where academics are being sued or are being threatened to be sued for academic use of the Swedish mutation. My understanding is quite the opposite, that its use is highly encouraged where appropriate - it certainly is by me.

    I think the issues arise when the mutation has been deliberately exploited in for-profit programs. Then under US law (and law in most other countries) if patents are not licensed but are infringed the owner of the patent has the right to act against that infringing party. This is why Elan sued Mayo, AIA and has sued others.

    In infringement lawsuits, one of the defendant’s positions is to try and invalidate a patent and one of the ways they can do that is to claim that the inventorship is incompletely attributed. Hence the new Lannfelt story. Ultimately, juries will decide whether they believe him or not.

    It is a sad fact of life that if, as academics, we become inventors on important patents then we might expect that we may end up in court on either side of lawsuits. Such lawsuits can become very nasty very quickly - lawyers want to win. An academic life without patents might be nice but it's very likely to be true that any efficacious treatments for AD will be very extensively patented. Perhaps some courses on navigating the world of intellectual property might be useful to many researchers?

  2. Dr. Mullan comments in reply to this article that academics are not being sued for use of the Swedish mutation and, just the opposite, are highly encouraged to use the mutation. That statement hardly comports with the fact that The Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit, is being sued by his organization despite the fact that the mouse strains that are the subject of the lawsuit are made available by the Jackson Lab to only academic and nonprofit institutions for research purposes only.

  3. Due to the pending litigation in which AIA is unfortunately involved, AIA originally refused to comment when this forum contacted it. Having now seen the resulting article, AIA must respond to correct many of the misstatements and misconceptions reported.

    First, AIA has always encouraged academic research using the Swedish mutation. For example, AIA worked with Mayo to ensure that the Tg2576 mice containing the Swedish mutation were widely available to academic researchers. In fact, there are dozens and dozens of academic institutions that are using the Swedish mutation for non-commercial purposes and have never been bothered about it, much less brought to court.

    Second, the uses of the Swedish mutation employed by the companies mentioned in the article are categorically different because they are commercial uses. When companies sell products containing the Swedish mutation (such as Jackson Labs' sale of Swedish mutation containing mice) or where the Swedish mutation has been deliberately exploited in for-profit ventures (such as OMRF's use of the Swedish mutation and subsequent spin off of CoMentis, Inc.) or where large pharmaceutical companies (such as Elan and Pfizer) engage in massive drug discovery and development programs using the technology, then AIA is entitled to a license and to share in the potential revenue. AIA made licenses to many of these companies available, and the companies decided to use the technology without a license anyway. When that happens, AIA has no choice but to seek a resolution in court.

    Third, the defense of incorrect inventorship is an old tactic pursued by infringers in many patent cases. This case is no different. In this case, Dr. Lannfelt has come up with a new story, despite the fact that he conceded long ago that he was not an inventor on these patents. Dr. Lannfelt's new story is at odds with contemporaneous correspondence from March 1992 (the same month the original patent application was filed) that specifically states that Dr. Lannfelt examined the data and (incorrectly) decided that amyloid was not the gene containing the mutation and that the mutation was actually discovered by Dr. Mullan. Ultimately, however, the issue of inventorship -- like all the other issues in the article -- will be decided in court, not in the media. That is how it should be.

  4. The report by Esther Landhuis and Gabrielle Strobel reflects the inherent intellectual and financial turbulence that evolves when advancing technology interfaces with the patent system and commercial system.

    First, let’s examine the patent issues. It is critical to understand the patent process, whereby a government-based patent officer is required to review patent material put forth by inventors. The officer has a limited amount of time to devote to an individual patent. In the 1990s, in the same period when the disputed patent was granted, I talked to such an officer, who told me that the time spent on an individual patent should average out to about 20 hours. This time allotment is complicated because the patent officers cover a broad range of material, such as the field of “biotechnology,” which can range from degeneration to inflammation to cancer to agriculture. Thus, some of the time must be spent in education. This specific number of hours and breadth of subjects might have changed over time, but the fact remains that officers have limited time to spend on any given patent. Meanwhile, the inventors have hired highly skilled lawyers to push their case. There is little room in the process for other parties to contest the patent or claims until after it is granted and made public. The result is that patent officers are often convinced to grant patents or claims that are flawed. These flaws are corrected through a cumbersome process of litigation that has chilling effects on scientific advancement because of the financial risks incurred by the litigation process.

    It is clear that one of the flaws in this patent process was the issue of inventorship. I would suggest that history indicates that Mike Mullan was unlikely to be the sole inventor because the other contributors have had a far larger impact on the Alzheimer’s research field and a far stronger record of discovery and inventorship than Mullan before and after the APPswe identification. It seems likely that Mullan played an important role but was not the sole inventor. However, it would be very difficult for a patent officer who is not familiar with the field to catch this nuance. Hence, a flawed claim.

    Second, let’s examine technology. Patents are granted for 20 years. During that time, technology evolves, and what might have seemed like a reasonable claim in 1992 rapidly becomes superseded. Genetic technology is a prime example. Originally, identifying a genetic mutation was a seminal event and represented a large amount of work. Now, sequencing is routine. The advancing technology does not diminish the value of identifying the Swedish mutation, but from a commercial standpoint means that the process associated with the original identification of the Swedish mutation rapidly evolved to reflect a scientific process that was less unique. The evolving patent law as evidenced by the recent BRCA1/2 rulings reflects this evolution.

    Third, let’s examine commerce from two angles. First commerce and academia. The OMRF is a not-for-profit institution, as is my institution, Boston University. However, both institutions have a keen desire to develop technology and spin it off towards some sort of commercialization. This interest in commercialization, which I personally find to be really exciting, blurs the boundaries between academia and commerce. The Supreme Court noted this in a recent ruling that academic institutions (I think Duke was the target) can also have commercial interests. This intersection between academia and commerce is vital for the nation’s economies. Our academic institutions are also critical sources of intellectual and technological innovation in America and need to be protected. However, the reality is that the OMRF has a dual interest (even if they do spin off all commercial interests to a secondary party), and such dual interests open up these institutions to the realities of commercial life. The good comes with the bad.

    Commerce also needs to be examined from the corporate angle. Note that a business corporation in Kansas purchased rights to the patent. Corporations have one purpose and only one purpose, which is to make money. The welfare of the people (e.g., officers and employees), the ideas, the country, the environment (intellectual or natural) are all secondary to the primary mission of the corporation, which make money. Many people in our country feel that on aggregate this profit motive will benefit society. This is true, but corporations, particularly publicly held corporations, act with a very short time frame for their vision. This short temporal horizon means that any individual corporation might act in a way that has a long-term chilling or harmful effect on society. This is true for the scientific environment, as we see in the case of the APPswe patent. This is also true in the cases of financial issues, as we saw with the banking debacle recently. This is also true in the case of global warming or environmental protection, where the short-term profit motive logically trumps any long-term interest in social or global issues. I personally believe that it is false to assume that the commercial sector will always act in a manner that benefits society in the long term. In these cases, we need government intervention to protect the academic and, yes, commercial entities in a way that fosters innovation (which is the actual goal of the patent system). Similarly, we need government intervention to protect us against other catastrophes—financial or natural.

    I do not know all of the details of this story. However, based on this outstanding Alzforum article, it is disingenuous of Mike Mullan or those affiliated with AIA to claim that they are making strong efforts to foster scientific research. This is clearly not the case. The goal of the AIA corporation is to make money for the corporation, regardless of other damages, and Mike Mullan directly benefits from this goal. Of course, for them to say otherwise would damage their position in any litigation, so their response is what we should expect.

    Conclusion: I return to my original statement. This case reflects the intellectual and financial turbulence that evolves when advancing technology interfaces with the patent system and commercial system. It is painful, and the inefficiency of the system has a chilling effect on academic innovation. Unfortunately, the U.S. system lacks a mechanism to efficiently and cheaply correct flaws in a patent process. I would love to present a quick solution, but I don’t see it.

  5. Mullan appears to misunderstand the architecture of modern biological science. Without the contributions by Glenner, Masters, Beyreuther, Van Broeckhoven, Hardy, Winblad, Lannfelt, and many others, the Swedish mutations would not have been identified. Without the efforts by Selkoe, Younkin, and colleagues, their utility would not have been recognized. It is greedy and arrogant to try to exclusively possess this particular intellectual property, which in my view should be commonly shared by the entire research community. Incidentally, Mullan's having been a "fully qualified physician seeing patients" when he was a graduate student has nothing to do with science.

  6. I read this news story with sadness. I regret the lack of investigators cooperating on the basis of mutual trust and a handshake. Of course, that is still possible among some, but these days commercial/monetary/legal issues are too often inserted to the detriment of science.

  7. This is an unpleasant situation that is hindering Alzheimer research and progress. Progressing the field is what we promise to the patients and the families. A mutation that segregates in an early onset AD family is a major cause of grief to that family and a huge burden for them to carry. They agree generously to participate in research, often not directly benefitting themselves from the research but hoping their (grand)children and others will. They do not demand any financial return, although, in fact, they could use it given the economical cost of caring for young patients in their families. In fact, are they not the owners of the mutation that segregates in their family? Also, are the neurologists and geneticists who invest in diagnosing and sampling the families not contributors to progress of Alzheimer research? Is it really so that those who can handle a technology are the real inventors?

    In the case of APP, we knew already that it was an Alzheimer gene as shown by the detection of the Dutch APP segregation and mutation in 1990 (Van Broeckhoven et al., 1990; Levy et al., 1990), and the London mutation APP mutation in 1991 (Goate et al., 1991). There are currently 32 different APP mutations known, and several of these have been modeled in mice and other model organisms. All are crucially important for Alzheimer research and are used by many researchers in the field, hoping to contribute to better insights in the disease process, leading in return to a better treatment for the patients.


    . Amyloid beta protein precursor gene and hereditary cerebral hemorrhage with amyloidosis (Dutch). Science. 1990 Jun 1;248(4959):1120-2. PubMed.

    . Mutation of the Alzheimer's disease amyloid gene in hereditary cerebral hemorrhage, Dutch type. Science. 1990 Jun 1;248(4959):1124-6. PubMed.

    . Segregation of a missense mutation in the amyloid precursor protein gene with familial Alzheimer's disease. Nature. 1991 Feb 21;349(6311):704-6. PubMed.

  8. I read this article and the commentaries with keen interest, since Alzheimer genetics was my original scientific field.

    I have four observations.

    1. Mullan raises the important point that scientists need some awareness of (and training to anticipate and manage) how complicated things can get in the mix of scientific and intellectual property concerns that permeate contemporary science. This is true. I strongly agree it's something that needs to be part of becoming a biomedical researcher these days.

    At the same time, disputes like this are going to happen, even among the most sophisticated intellectual property (IP)-savvy researchers. Patents are a right to sue, and so legal conflict is part of the system for those who elect to secure patents; you don't get them if you don't intend to defend them.

    2. One of the interesting ironies in the AD case study for the Secretary's Advisory Committee for Genetics Health and Society (mentioned in the story) was that Allen Roses secured ApoE patents not for commercial purposes, but to make sure the priority of discovery was clear (by using the formal patent application process). When the two of us who interviewed him asked, "So establishing priority of discovery was one reason you sought a patent?" he corrected us and said "It was the only reason we filed a patent application initially."

    3. One way to avoid such disputes in the future would be to have collective agreements that secure (minimal) payments for use of research tools and reagents that have attached IP, such as transgenic mouse models of human disease. That is, some agreed pathway to get some minimal payments back to the institutions that hold patent rights (or other IP), but that do not rely on exclusive blocking rights and extensive litigation. If there are many more disputes like this, perhaps the system will create such mechanisms.

    4. Given all the years of litigation, it is likely that the legal costs have outstripped any scientific value assessed in dollar terms in this case. The worldwide patent rights probably cost in the range of $50,000-$100,000; the litigation costs by now must surely be in the multiple millions if all the parties are included. Not to mention the aggravation and phone calls and e-mails and the opportunity costs of folks spending time on litigation instead of advancing science.

    That really is too bad, and it's quite clear something did not go right in this case. The legal system is well situated to eventually deal with such problems—and it will do so here—but it's a hellishly expensive and protracted way to get there. It seems this has escalated beyond reason, and, I suspect, even at the end of a long legal trial, no one will be fully satisfied.


    . Impact of gene patents and licensing practices on access to genetic testing for Alzheimer disease. Genet Med. 2010 Apr;12(4 Suppl):S71-82. PubMed.

    . The Perils of Taking Property Too Far. Stanf J Law Sci Policy. 2009 May;1:46-64. PubMed.

    . DNA patents and diagnostics: not a pretty picture. Nat Biotechnol. 2010 Aug;28(8):784-91. PubMed.

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News Citations

  1. Keystone Drug News: CoMentis BACE Inhibitor Debuts
  2. Workshop Explores Intellectual Property Issues in Alzheimer’s Disease

Paper Citations

  1. . Correlative memory deficits, Abeta elevation, and amyloid plaques in transgenic mice. Science. 1996 Oct 4;274(5284):99-102. PubMed.
  2. . A pathogenic mutation for probable Alzheimer's disease in the APP gene at the N-terminus of beta-amyloid. Nat Genet. 1992 Aug;1(5):345-7. PubMed.
  3. . Segregation of a missense mutation in the amyloid precursor protein gene with familial Alzheimer's disease. Nature. 1991 Feb 21;349(6311):704-6. PubMed.

Other Citations

  1. Tg2576 mice

External Citations

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  3. Roskamp Institute
  4. Archer Pharmaceuticals
  5. lawsuit
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  16. St. Petersburg Times story
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  19. Bilski case
  20. freely available online
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Further Reading


  1. . Gene patenting--is the pendulum swinging back?. N Engl J Med. 2010 May 20;362(20):1855-8. PubMed.