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Researchers to keep some biotech rights: Patents could be used to aid poor

(Friday, July 11, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Justin Gillis, Washington Post: The nation's leading centers of plant research launched a plan yesterday to share the benefits of agricultural biotechnology more widely, particularly with farmers growing subsistence crops in poor countries and with specialty farmers growing fruits, nuts and vegetables for the American table.

Under the plan, announced in the journal Science, top universities and other research centers said they would manage their biotechnology patents more carefully than in the past. When they license patents on new techniques to corporations, they said, they will reserve rights to use those techniques for humanitarian projects in poor countries, and to apply them to specialized crops that are grown in the industrial world but are too small to interest large agricultural companies.

Parties to the agreement said it was an attempt to restore some balance, and a keener sense of the public welfare, to an agricultural-research system increasingly dominated by large corporations.

At the same time, they emphasized that the plan is not an attempt to undermine the patenting of genetic techniques or stop the commercialization of crops developed using those patents. "We are not interested in diminishing the commercial opportunities of this technology," said Alan B. Bennett, a plant biologist who is also executive director of research administration and technology transfer in the University of California system, which is participating in the new plan.

Rather, the organizers said, they want to be sure an increasingly complicated thicket of patent issues in the world of plant research doesn't slow or halt public interest projects that the big companies have little or no interest in supporting.

Like biologists in other disciplines, plant researchers have been wrestling for several years with a welter of complex patent difficulties. The definitive case study for those who see problems in the current system is a biotechnology invention called golden rice.

Ingo Potrykus, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and his collaborators moved genes from the daffodil plant into rice, creating a type of rice that can make a precursor chemical to vitamin A. The crop holds potential for alleviating life-threatening vitamin A deficiency among poor children in many parts of the world.

But to create the plant, Potrykus had to use numerous patented or proprietary technologies, many of them created at universities but licensed to more than a score of companies. Those companies had no particular interest in blocking golden rice, but a keen interest in protecting their patents. Potrykus had nearly despaired of solving the patent mess when the agricultural biotechnology companies, in an unrelated flap, came under fire in Europe for pushing genetically modified crops like corn and soybeans.

Suddenly eager for an exhibit to showcase the potential of genetic engineering to help the poor, companies tripped over one another to donate their patent rights and help Potrykus win the many permissions he needed. Golden rice is now under further development and could, in the long run, be planted widely in rice-consuming countries.

As that brouhaha was unfolding several years ago, many people noted the problem might never have occurred if the universities that developed the technologies in the first place had, in granting licenses to corporations, retained the right to use their technologies for humanitarian purposes. More recently, small companies and plant breeders have been complaining of a similar problem in their attempts to work on specialty crops, like strawberries or walnuts.

Such crops generally don't interest big agricultural companies like Monsanto Co. or Syngenta AG, which spend their energy on crops grown on millions of acres, such as soybeans and corn. But the corporations control patent rights to technologies that could be used to improve smaller crops important to farmers in particular regions of the country. Once again, many universities have licensed away those rights in their entirety, without seeking to protect the interests of the specialty farmers.

While the difficulties have prompted some critics to mount broad attacks on the patent system, one leading sponsor of public-interest agricultural research, the Rockefeller Foundation of New York, has focused recently on finding pragmatic solutions. A few months ago, it announced a plan under which ag biotech companies agreed to donate their technologies for use in Africa. The new plan creates a somewhat similar scheme for universities.

"A lot of what this is all about really boils down to just smarter licensing on the part of the universities," said Gary Toenniessen, director of food security programs at the Rockefeller Foundation. "They're reluctant to say that, because nobody wants to say, 'We haven't been doing it smart up until now.' "

With prodding from Rockefeller and another foundation concerned about the issue, the McKnight Foundation of Minneapolis, several major research centers devised the plan in recent months. In yesterday's Science announcement, they said they would create a consortium called the Public-Sector Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture. It will track the details of agricultural patent licensing and create a set of "best practices" for universities to follow in their deals with commercial companies.

Eventually, participants said, the consortium may be able to pool the rights of numerous universities and offer them as a package to small companies that want to work on particular specialty crops. And the group also hopes to offer licensing packages to researchers working to improve staple crops, such as cassavas or bananas, grown by small farmers in poor countries.

Signatories to the plan include the presidents or chancellors of Cornell University, Michigan State University, North Carolina State University, Ohio State University, the University of California system, the University of California at Riverside, the University of California at Davis, Rutgers University, the University of Florida, the University of Wisconsin, the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. These are the major plant research centers in the United States, but many other universities and laboratories conduct such work, and they will be invited to join the new consortium.