Fundamental research: is it worth patenting?

While patenting in various fields of the industry is visible, the significance of patenting scientific research results remains more questionable to both scientists and entrepreneurs, especially in the field of fundamental research. Publishing scientific articles by some are still considered preferential over patenting since patenting is more costly than publishing an article. On the other hand, a patent or a patent portfolio may be a significant source of income, not the expenses. The scientists don’t necessarily have to commercialize the inventions themselves to make money from the inventions; patents could be sold or licensed. Let’s examine some recent examples of patenting in the field of fundamental research.

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to William G. Kaelin Jr., Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for their discoveries of how cells sense and to adapt to oxygen availability. When there are changes in the oxygen levels around animal cells, the cells undergo fundamental shifts in gene expression, which alter cell metabolism, tissue re-modelling, and other organismal responses. Gregg Semenza’s team identified, purified and cloned a protein complex that binds to the identified DNA segment in an oxygen-dependent manner. This complex was called the Hypoxia Inducible Factor (HIF). It showed that it consists of two components: a novel and oxygen-sensitive moiety, HIF-1α, and a previously identified non-oxygen-regulated protein known as ARNT. Kaelin’s team had been studying von Hippel-Lindau’s disease (VHL disease) and showed that the VHL gene encodes a protein that prevents the onset of cancer. Kaelin also showed that cancer cells lacking a functional VHL gene express abnormally high levels of hypoxia-regulated genes. Other research groups showed that VHL is part of a complex that labels proteins with ubiquitin, marking them for degradation. Ratcliffe’s group then demonstrated that there was an association between VHL and HIF-1α and that VHL regulated HIF-1α post-translational and oxygen-sensitive degradation. Finally, the Kaelin and Ratcliffe groups simultaneously showed that this regulation of HIF-1α by VHL depends on hydroxylation of HIF-1α, a covalent modification that is itself dependent on oxygen.

How is this fundamental discovery related to patenting?

Firstly, there are dozens of patent documents, filled by the Nobel prize winners themselves. Gregg Semenza has filed the most patent applications, related to the subject. There are several examples: Nucleic acids encoding the hypoxia-inducible factor-1 (US5882914A, priority 1995-06-06); Mutant hypoxia-inducible factor-1 HIF-1 (US6124131A, priority 1998-08-25); HIF-1 modulator paint formulation and uses thereof (US10220009B2, priority 2015-04-06) and other. Peter J. Ratcliffe has patented several inventions as well: Hif hydroxylase inhibitors for use in the treatment of anaemia (EP1485347B1, priority 2002-03-21); MN gene and protein (US7910549B2, priority 2001-12-13); MN and Hypoxia (US20090239247A1, priority 2002-12-13). Patent application US7910549B2 was filed by Institute of Virology (Slovak Academy of Science). Currently, it belongs to Biomedical Research Centre Of Slovak Academy of Sciences and Bayer HealthCare LLC. Therefore, it could have been sold to Bayer HealthCare LLC. There are thousands of patent applications, related to hypoxia-inducible factor alone, filled by other researchers.

Secondly, are these patents of fundamental research interesting for companies? While searching for the “hypoxia-inducible factor” related patents, at the patent databases, it could be found that there are companies and universities, who own the most patents. As of January 2019, these are the top 10 assignees, who hold the most significant portfolio of “hypoxia-inducible factor” related patent applications (starting from the one, who owns the most applications): Bayer companies’ group; Fibrogen, Inc.; The Johns Hopkins University; Shinta Pharmaceuticals Corporation; Shanghai Expo Basics Co., Ltd.; Emory University; Sirna Therapeutics, Inc.; Angiogenetics Sweden Ab; New York University and Isis Innovation Limited. Out of ten, there are seven companies who own the most significant portfolio of this particular fundamental research-related topics.

Back to the question, is it worth to patent the results of fundamental research? The patent database analysis shows that companies, universities and research institutions are patenting fundamental research-related inventions constantly and that is one of the best ways to gain commercial benefits from the invention.

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