Rochester school puts its hope on painkiller patent

University may reap lucrative benefits of research from '80s, '90s

July 16, 2000|By Lynda Richardson | Lynda Richardson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- The University of Rochester had ambitions to be a national powerhouse in medical research. And it had charted a meticulous 10-year plan to get there: Get more research money from the National Institutes of Health, recruit 100 more biomedical scientists and construct two research buildings.

Then came the jackpot.

In April, the university announced that it had been awarded a broad patent covering the use of a new type of painkiller that could bring in billions of dollars in royalties.

So administrators, faculty and students at the midsize university are mulling over how the institution could be catapulted to prominence faster than anyone had dreamed.

"If it happens, it would certainly be a great catalyst," Dr. Jay Stein, who oversees the University of Rochester Medical Center, said of the potential billions. "It could obviously make it easier to do what we're planning and help us compete better with the Harvards, Stanfords and so on."

A no-nonsense scientist to the end, Stein soberly refused to bite when asked for his wildest fantasies on how the money might be spent. So did other administrators.

Yet it could be a lot of money. Officials at the university say the patent, for the basic science underlying a new type of painkiller, is the most lucrative ever awarded to an academic institution.

The patent says that research conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Dr. Donald Young, a professor of medicine and biochemistry at the university, and two colleagues pioneered the development of Cox-2 inhibitor drugs. The popular medications are sometimes called superaspirin for their ability to alleviate pain while minimizing side effects -- particularly stomach ulcers -- associated with frequent use of aspirin, ibuprofen or similar painkillers. Superaspirin has become the pharmaceutical industry's fastest-selling product, and analysts predict that the market for such drugs could grow to $12 billion per year by 2008, said Terry O'Grady, associate counsel for the University of Rochester Medical School.

Officials at the university caution that no one should expect to see Porsches filling the parking lot any time soon, primarily because of legal fights with the companies that developed products that the university said were based on its research. After the university received the patent, it immediately filed a patent infringement suit against the makers of one top-selling painkiller, Celebrex, claiming that the university is entitled to significant royalties. Legal showdowns with makers of several best-selling drugs could tie up the case for years.

"If this patent proves to be as incredibly lucrative as we believe it will be, we will be doing more of the same," said Thomas H. Jackson, the university's president. Jackson said a significant portion of the money would be used for basic research, laboratories and the hiring of faculty members, though no specifics had been worked out.

Experts say a growing number of universities are showing an increased willingness to seek their share of riches from inventions.

"Universities have gotten a lot smarter about how to encourage faculty to engage in this kind of activity and a lot smarter about how to win the patent battle," said Robert Zemsky, a professor and director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. "This is a giant deal. If this works, this is the university equivalent of the big-game lottery."

The University of Rochester filed the patent application in 1992, and it took eight years to work its way through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This turned out to be to Rochester's benefit because in the meantime, the drugs have gone on the market and became an immediate hit. Because the life of the patent -- 17 years -- began when it was granted, the university presumably avoided wasting many years as a patent holder before the drugs began to make money.

When the university decided to undertake the expensive process of filing a patent application, it was intended to protect intellectual property. "This was truly an academic patent," said Jackson. "I don't think anybody necessarily thought that it would be a huge commercial success. As it sat in the patent office, it went from looking more and more like the original decision was not only correct but stunningly correct."

Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities, said such patents had become an important part of university financing.

"Universities in recent years have tried to get patents and licensing opportunities in order to generate revenues for both research and education," he said. "There's one study that calls it academic capitalism."

The University of Rochester is regarded as more of a solid regional institution rather than a heavy-hitting national player, though a number of its programs, like optics and the Eastman School of Music, are well respected.

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