LSF Magazine: Fall 2012

The British failure to patent hybridoma technology

In August of 1975, German cell biologist Georges Köhler and Argentine biochemist César Milstein announced the invention of hybridoma technology in Nature. The experiments were performed in Milstein’s Cambridge laboratory, which was funded by the British Medical Research Council. Köhler was visiting the lab, conducting post-doctoral research on antibody genetics. In the course of this work, he and Milstein stumbled on a cell fusion technique that enabled, for the first time, the continuous and copious production of specific immunoglobulins against distinct antigens of interest – monoclonal antibodies. They famously concluded the paper by stating that the invention “could be valuable for medical and industrial use.”

Milstein was philosophically opposed to patenting scientific discoveries. He believed that privatization could hinder scientific progress by prohibiting or discouraging researchers from pursuing promising lines of inquiry. He was a pragmatist, however, and allowed that “patents are perhaps necessary for the development of products that will ultimately benefit society.” Milstein approached the MRC to recommend a patent filing. After a cursory review, the agency judged that the invention did not merit the expense.

The MRC evidently did not recognize the significance of the invention. American entrepreneurs at companies such as Hybritech and Centocor rushed in to seize opportunities created by the MRC’s inaction. The British have been sore about it ever since. A sympathetic American commentator has said: “Anonymous administrators responsible for such decisions should be publicly exposed for their bad judgment and incompetence. Perhaps the time has come to restore the stockades and gallows at Tyburn as a way of reintroducing accountability.” The MRC’s decision not to patent hybridoma technology turned out to be a gaffe of titanic proportions, and a major blow to British biotechnology.

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