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Nature Medicine’s wake-up call on intellectual property rights

Intellectual-property protection is a key driver of innovation, and researchers are always keen to file patents to shield their discoveries. Yet scientists often have an uninformed view of the value of their intellectual property. This naiveté slows down translational research. So concludes the November Editorial in Nature Medicine (15, 1229; 2009).

An informal poll conducted by the Nature Medicine editors revealed that “about two-thirds of scientists, particularly in Europe, don’t know who owns the intellectual rights to the discoveries made in their labs. A similarly high proportion don’t know if there are any provisions in their job contracts assigning them any rights over their discovery. And roughly half don’t even know whether they are legally entitled to open a company based on their research.” Ironically, states the Editorial, these are the very same scientists who dream of patenting their work and reaping the financial benefits. Before thinking about licenses (the essential first step), the Editorial continues, “it’s important to realize that the decision to file a patent seldom rests with the scientists, but rather with the technology transfer office (TTO) of their institution. Strangely enough, although most of the scientists we surveyed were interested in patenting their work and knew about the importance of the TTO to this end, over 60% admitted to never having interacted with that office.” After highlighting some of the problems concerning technology transfer offices and investor caution, the Editorial concludes:

“Translational researchers never shy away from the chance to present their science to anyone who might want to invest in it. But they would be well advised to start listening to companies, investors and their own TTOs to develop a better understanding of what they must bring to the table in order to attract financial support. Admittedly, there are very few places where scientists can learn how to engage in this dialogue, but the excuse that provides should be cold comfort given how important this is to the progress of translational research. The creation of forums of this sort should therefore become a priority for universities and research centers alike. A high-profile paper may allow you to get your foot in the door, but it won’t be enough to open it.”

See also the free Nature Medicine podcast, this month looking at the law in the context of the “patent cliff” which pharmaceutical companies are facing.

In other Nature Medicine news, the journal is organizing a colloquium on Systems Biology and HIV Vaccine Development on 8-10 February 2010 in Peachtree City, Georgia, USA. Participants will include HIV researchers and scientists using systems approaches in other areas of biomedical research, who will address how systems biology has provided insight into the immune response and into other areas of medicine, such as cancer and autoimmunity. Also on the agenda for discussion are the technical and bioinformatic challenges associated with using systems biology approaches; the gaps in HIV immunology that need to be resolved to develop an HIV vaccine; whether systems approaches can help to address these questions; and how ‘systems vaccinology’ approaches can be implemented in HIV vaccine development and clinical trial monitoring.

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