Who Owns Valuable (But Not Patented) Ideas?

A high-stakes legal battle over cancer research spotlights important questions about intellectual property

2 min read
Who Owns Valuable (But Not Patented) Ideas?

A cancer research institute at the University of Pennsylvania has sued its former director, now the president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, claiming that he “chose to abscond” with groundbreaking research and used it to start a biotechnology company. That company, Agios Pharmaceuticals based in Cambridge, Mass., is developing a potentially new way to treat cancer and has raised about US $260 million, according to the New York Times.

Craig Thompson, the researcher in the middle of the billion-dollar suit, denies the charge. But the case highlights a couple crucial questions: who owns research ideas? And would this be an issue if those ideas didn’t lead to a product, a company in this case, that was valued at millions?

Thompson joined the Leonard and Madlyn Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute at UPenn in 1999 as its scientific director. In 2006, he became director of the Abramson Cancer Center, of which the Institute is a part. He joined Memorial Sloan-Kettering in 2010.

While at the Institute, he worked on cancer metabolism, studying metabolic enzymes that play a role in the formation and progression of tumors. The lawsuit claims that Thompson took this intellectual property, funded by the Institute, to Agios, which he co-founded in 2007. Further, it says that he hid his role in starting Agios.

The complication here is that there is no patent involved that the Institute can claim to own. The lawsuit might hinge on the critical question of whether Thompson gave away patented information to Agios or merely ideas. The Institute does not cite any specific patents in its lawsuit. And, as per the New York Times, Lewis Cantley, another Agios co-founder and director of the cancer center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, says that the company was not pursuing technology from Thompson’s former laboratory.

Finally, this from a WNYC news post:

Arti Rai [who teaches intellectual property at Duke University] said university research scientists – unlike their industrial counterparts – often move from place to place and take their knowledge with them with impunity. But it depends on the perceived financial value of their research.

“In cases of pre-patentable know-how, where there isn’t money involved, and it’s just the researcher’s brain going from Lab A to Lab B, there wouldn’t be a lawsuit, because there isn’t money to be gained, “ Rai said. “Here, there’s a startup company that’s signed a lucrative deal. Evidently, the cancer institute thought there was enough money to be made in the not-too-distant future [to sue].”

Illustration: Mick Wiggins

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