Institutions, Company Spar Over Rights to RNAi

A fight has broken out over who owns important pieces of RNA interference (RNAi) technology, a strategy to silence genes that could prove extremely lucrative as companies figure out how to apply it to human disease. Last week, the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, which supports research at Germany’s Max Planck institutes, and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, an RNAi company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sued three institutions alleging that they had “usurped” inventions that “rightfully belong to Max Planck,” according to the suit. The institutions being sued are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and the University of Massachusetts.

The lawsuit, filed in Suffolk County Superior Court in Massachusetts, is unusual because many scientists whose work formed the basis of the suit have allegiances to both sides. Two co-founders of Alnylam, Nobel Prize–winner Phil Sharp and David Bartel, are professors at MIT.

Several parties involved in the lawsuit, including Alnylam and Max Planck, declined to comment. But essentially, the lawsuit contends that some discoveries to which the three U.S. institutions have patent rights, which cover ways to silence genes with RNAi, rightfully belong to Max Planck. Alnylam has an exclusive license to the Max Planck patent; but not to the Whitehead, MIT, and University of Massachusetts patent; according to the lawsuit. Given that, Alnylam “stands to lose any and all competitive advantage in the marketplace that it otherwise would have,” the suit reads. Max Planck and Alnylam are pressing to prevent the U.S. institutions from taking any further action around their RNAi patent.