Not a day goes by without a lawsuit involving Alnylam. This time it would seem unjustly so.
The company disclosed in a regulatory filing today that the University of Utah (‘Utah’) is suing the owners of the valuable Tuschl II (T-II) patent estate (Max Planck, the Whitehead Institute, MIT, and UMass) along with licensee Alnylam (but not Merck) for wrongfully omitting Utah scientist Brenda Bass as the inventor of the 3’ overhang feature central to that patent family. While the demands of the plaintiff, i.e. naming Dr. Bass as the sole or at least joint inventor plus damages, are unlikely to be met, it is a reminder that the validity of the T-II invention has yet to be confirmed in the US and that Alnylam’s aggressive bid to control the world of RNAi Therapeutics may have triggered a backlash gathering steam.
In the Complaint, Utah basically asserts that Dr. Bass first conceived of the 3’ overhang feature of the small RNA gene silencing mediators that Tuschl and colleagues saw in their elegant Drosophila lysate experiments. The plaintiffs cite as evidence a review on the Tuschl work that she began writing on March 21, 2000 and which incorporates a highly speculative model featuring small 3’ overhang siRNAs as the intermediates and likely mediators of RNAi. On April 11, 2000 she then presented her ideas at a conference at which Zamore, a co-inventor of T-I and claimed by some to be a co-inventor of T-II also, was present. More such presentations and communications as is normal in academia took place and which allegedly involved other inventors named on T-II.
The Complaint further alleges that the named T-II inventors improperly used that information to file on December 1, 2000, the first T-II priority document with the European patent office- but without naming her and therefore depriving the University of Utah of the economic benefit of T-II, arguably Alnylam’s crown jewels.
I find it very hard to believe that Utah’s request of Max Planck naming Dr. Bass as an inventor on the T-II patent application will go anywhere. First, she speculated that 3’ overhangs might be involved in the pathway, but it was only the presently named T-II inventors that actually demonstrated the utility of such overhangs. More importantly, however, if Dr. Bass and Utah really believed the 3’ overhang feature had economic value, they should have filed for their own patent application before publishing the review. Since this has not happened, the review became a public disclosure and a free-for-all. According to the description in the Complaint, there never existed a ‘real’ collaboration between Dr. Bass and the Tuschl inventors so that including her as an inventor would be wrong in my opinion.
But then again, because of her disclosure, whether she were to be included or not, it would be an invalid patent due to her own prior art if the review held up as such.
I would have expected the Bass issue to come up as part of the US T-II examination back-and-forth anyway, but not to the extent that it would have real threatening power. It is, however, highly unusual that Utah would challenge the inventorship of T-II already at this stage, in the same court that heard the Tuschl litigation, as inventorship questions are normally dealt with during patent prosecution or after a potential grant. The timing is even more so unfortunate for Alnylam, as they have to now deal with two lawsuits simultaneously, lawsuits that are challenging the two most important elements of Alnylam’s RNAi world domination strategy: SNALP delivery and T-II.
My humble advice: Deal with the Tekmira issue first, i.e. acquire Tekmira as Alnylam should have done all along, then focus on clinical progress. The Utah issue will then feel less of a nuisance and distraction.