Gold mines sprouting in labs Test-tube discoveries benefit the university, the industry and society

Stanford harvests millions

A dentistry team has put UM on verge of a lucrative deal

April 21, 1996|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

For more than a decade Dr. Gary Hack, a researcher and professor at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry in Baltimore, toiled in his lab on a vexing problem: how to stop the pain of hypersensitive teeth, a condition that affects up to 20 percent of the population.

Today, Dr. Hack and a colleague, Dr. Leonard Litkowski, are perched on the cusp of fortune, if not fame, for a pivotal discovery they made while laboring on this mystery. They found that Bioglass, a microscopic material made by USBiomaterials of White Marsh, appears to help the body restore the loss of dentin in tooth enamel, a condition thought to cause the chilling pain of hypersensitive teeth.

The dentists' employer, the University of Maryland, also stands to benefit handsomely from the discovery, thanks to a growing trend: Increasingly, U.S. biotechnology and medical companies are acquiring the rights to discoveries born in university laboratories.

In fact, according to industry experts, 60 percent to 75 percent of the health-related products now in the development pipeline of the country's biotechnology and medical firms can be traced to research or inventions at U.S. universities.

"There's this misplaced mythology that university professors and researchers are on some aberrant track in their laboratories and work, when actually they are among the richest sources of innovation and creativity for industry and for improving the general welfare of society," said David A. Blake, executive vice dean at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Increasingly, that same innovation and creativity is proving a boon to the coffers of universities such as Hopkins as they forge deals with industry for the fruits of their researchers' brain power.

The numbers range from technology giant Stanford University, which pulls in nearly $40 million annually from licensing and royalty payments, to Hahnemann University (student population 1,000) of Philadelphia, which takes in about $100,000 annually.

In Baltimore, the top earner is Hopkins, which only recently broke down a long-standing resistance to shopping its world-class reputation to industry; it pulls in about $3 million annually from licensing deals.

Nationwide, universities rang up more than $265 million from technology licensing and royalty payments, according to a 1994 survey by the Association of University Technology Managers. University faculty, too, stand to profit from discoveries and inventions that find their way into the market.

For example, should USBiomaterials be successful in landing deals with one or more of the major toothpaste or mouthwash companies to commercialize Bio-glass to restore dentin, Dr. Hack and Dr. Litkowski could see a royalty stream of six figures each annually, based on projected sales figures of $225 million to $3 billion a year, said James L. Meyers, president of USBiomaterials.

The industry average royalty payment to a university is 2 percent to 10 percent, depending on the type of industry buying the license.

Inventors usually get one-third of that payment, though as sales go higher, the inventor's percentage share goes down.

Mr. Meyers, whose company financially supports Dr. Hack's research at UMAB, said supporting research at academic institutions makes sense for young biotech companies because it gives them more bang for the buck.

"An emerging biotechnology company's biggest expense is research. But they can't afford to have huge R&D departments, so there's a big cost savings to be gained from supporting academic research," said Mr. Meyers.

As a result, universities are becoming savvy to the hunger among U.S. businesses for the knowledge needed to create new products. And university officials are increasingly aware of industries' willingness to pay top dollar for a potential blockbuster.

A telling example: Last July, biotechnology giant Amgen of Thousand Oaks, Calif., paid Rockefeller University and its researcher Dr. Jeffrey Friedman $20 million to license the rights to the discovery of a gene that affects weight and obesity.

But the lure of big money can create problems, noted Hopkins' Dr. Blake -- like conflict of interest and other reputation-damaging practices such as skewing research data to hype a discovery.

Hopkins has rewritten its licensing and research rules to stymie such trespasses while encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit among scientists at the university by offering more lucrative royalty payments.

Dr. Blake believes that the new policies could become a model for other major universities.

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