NIH Cuts Mouse Deal

A new agreement cuts away some of the red tape snarling cancer research. The policy, announced by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on 19 January, allows NIH-funded scientists doing noncommercial research to use patented transgenic animals without the written approval of the E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co. of Wilmington, Delaware.

"This is a significant deal" because it removes legal worries for many labs, says David Einhorn, counsel to the Jackson Laboratory of Bar Harbor, Maine, a major supplier of research animals. Equally important, experts say, DuPont agrees not to seek broad commercial rights to discoveries in nonprofit labs just because patented animals were used in the research.

In 1988, Harvard University was granted a patent on the OncoMouse and broad claims on any other mammal (except humans) containing foreign genes implanted to express a tumor. Harvard licensed the technology to DuPont, which didn't start enforcing its legal rights vigorously until the mid-1990s, one expert in the field says. By then, the technology was widespread. Scientists were not only publishing papers on tumor-ridden mice and other animals, but breeding and sharing them with colleagues. When DuPont demanded that they submit papers for review by the company and stop sharing animals, many scientists got upset. "In a sense, we were all violators of the patent," and all at risk of being sued, recalls Harold Varmus, the former NIH director who this month took over as president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Varmus says he personally appealed to DuPont CEO Chad Holliday about the OncoMouse problem. After many months of negotiations, the DuPont and NIH technology licensing staffs reached an agreement that would exempt nonprofit researchers from restrictive licensing provisions. (The text is available at

"It will be a great relief for many people to know they are not violating the law" by sharing animals with a colleague down the hall, says Varmus. DuPont "deeply appreciates the importance of wide dissemination of tools for basic research and is committed to making [OncoMouse] available to the academic community," corporate intellectual property manager Tom Powell commented in a written statement. However, the company will retain tight control of commercial uses.