09 Sep Father of life patents downplays historic role
Madison, Wis. – Ananda Chakrabarty is modest about the role he played in sparking the American biotechnology industry, but others are willing to do the boasting for him.
Chakrabarty, the first person to successfully patent life forms, visited Wisconsin this week to lecture students enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s biotechnology program. Asked if he understood the full impact of securing the legal right to patent genetically engineered Psuedomonas – engineered living organisms – Chakrabarty downplayed his contribution.
“It’s hard to know [the impact],” he said following a lecture at the Fluno Center. “You’re just happy with the result that you had, and that you’re going to move on and see what happens next.”
What has happened next is a career that has taken him places, including distinguished scientist award ceremonies, United Nations consultancies, and service on the United States National Research Council Committee on Biotechnology.
Chakrabarty, who has a Ph.D in biochemistry from Calcutta University, is now a distinguished professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and he has founded two companies involved in the very industry he helped ignite. His biotech firms are CDG Therapeutics, which has secured five patents and is investigating the value of bacteria as an agent to fight cancer (including brain tumors), malaria, and even the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and Amrita Therapeutics, which has been established to examine an even broader range of therapeutic uses for bacteria.
Bacteria, he noted, have undergone 2.7 billion years of evolution, and as a result they know how eukaryotic cells – those with a nuclei and organs (or organelles) – function. They therefore appear not to be content with slowing the growth of cancer cells, but interfering with all of cancer’s multiple pathways.
Ironically, Chakrabarty’s research team was studying Cystic Fibrosis when it discovered that bacteria appear to have value as anti-cancer agents. CDG subsequently developed the concept to the point where its chief bacterial product, Azurin, which had been known for 25 years as a protein used in electron transfer, is set for clinical trials.
The result could be a rebirth of what Chakrabarty called an “antibiotic-like” industry. Investors have been reluctant to finance antibiotics in recent years because of the resistance that has developed, but Azurin could turn them around – especially if it turns out to be a multi-disease targeting, “promiscuous” drug.
“One of the nice things about science is that you never know where the research will lead you,” Chakrabarty said. “I knew nothing about cancer.”
The first life form patent also was a bacterium, one that was able to metabolize hydrocarbons in crude oil, but it didn’t happen without a fight. In a case that has parallels to today’s debate over embryonic stem cell research, Chakrabarty and his then employer, General Electric, applied for the patent in 1971, but it was rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on the premise that life forms were not patentable.
Through it all, he was told that if the PTO were to green light a patent for Pseudomonas, every other person on Earth would start applying to patent natural life forms. This ignored the fact that Chakrabarty had changed the genetic structure of the bacteria, and it assumed that because the Pseudomona was a living organism, it also was natural.
The appeal made its way through the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals Office and then the United States Supreme Court. After nine years of back and forth in which the moral ethics of patenting life forms was questioned, Chakrabarty emerged victorious in the landmark decision Diamond vs. Chakrabarty.
While Chakrabarty tends to dismiss the notion that he opened the floodgates for life-patenting, UW-Madison biotech professor Richard Schifreen isn’t sure stem cell researcher James Thomson would have derived a method to isolate embryonic stems cells had Chakrabarty not prevailed before the Supreme Court.
“It was an absolutely pivotal event in the growth of the biotech industry,” said Schifreen, who also serves as vice president of research products for Mirus Bio Corp. “His visit is a chance for students to not just read about it, but meet the person who did it.”
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