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Nature Biotechnology has a good wrap-up of the Ariad (ARIA) patent case, and it includes some insights into the whole "patent the pathway and profit" mindset.

That was the heart of Ariad's strategy: they licensed a patent on NF-kappaB from Harvard, MIT, and the Whitehead institute, and promptly went wild threatening to sue everyone that came within a mile of its (already ridiculously vast) claims.

I particularly like this description of the legal process involved:

. . .Despite the earlier jury verdict in Ariad's favor, "the federal circuit [court] treated these claims, you know, almost derisively. They just smacked them," says Minnesota patent attorney Warren Woessner, former chair of the biotech committee of the American Intellectual Property Law Association. Woessner had predicted Ariad's defeat. "They won in a jury trial—big deal. They got some Nobel prizewinners up there to say how wonderful this was, and the jury folded like a cheap lawn chair. That's not uncommon. But the [appeals judges] just demolished this."

Indeed. But the strategy isn't dead yet, unfortunately:

Companies asserting broad claims "are not going to get much sympathy" from the federal circuit, agrees (Duke's Arti) Rai. "And if they're trying to assert them against a defendant who is as willing to fight as Eli Lilly is, they're ultimately going to lose."

Many universities, however, emboldened by Ariad's 2006 district court victory, have been pressing for such broad claims. "Every professor that discovers a mechanism of action now wants you to claim it," says Woessner, who advises universities. "And it can be hard to dissuade them from that." The take-home lesson from the Ariad case, says Woessner, is that filing such broad claims, without specifying compounds, hoping that some will stand, is a risky patent strategy. "Don't try to get broad functional claims, like the Ariad claims, or the Rochester claims," he says, without describing specific pathway modulators.

Ah, but coming up with specific pathway modulators is often the job of. . .(drumroll) a drug company. One that's full of medicinal chemists who know how to try to optimize these things. Unless an academic group gets lucky in screening a smaller commercial compound collection, they're not likely to be able to show such enabling compounds.

And since most academic researchers don't have access to anything like the industry's high-throughput screening technology, let alone the industry's files of plausible-looking molecules, the chances aren't good. Heck, they aren't all that good for us over here, and we have all those things.

To get the full flavor, you really need to see some big HTS campaigns rummage expensively through a whopping compound collection and still come up with only 3-hydroxy-diddleysquat. . .

Source: Ariad Pharma: Professors Patent Pathways and Possibly Profit?