As often in life, involve money, and you will soon see who your true friends are. This rule also seems to apply to the fate of the Tuschl patent applications which more and more seem to go in Max Planck/Alnylam’s favor, and against the interests of UMass and Sirna Therapeutics/Merck, according to the latest coverage on the Tuschl Litigation Blog.
It has always been a mystery to me why Whitehead and the MIT would want to side with UMass in the first place, since as parties to the Therapeutic Use agreements between Max Planck, MIT, and Whitehead, Whitehead and MIT had nothing to gain, actually much more to lose, from UMass’ decision to go it alone and license the therapeutic rights to their part in the Tuschl invention to Sirna Therapeutics (now Merck) and to some degree also RXi Pharmaceuticals. Even more so given that Zamore's assignment of his interest in Tuschl-I to UMass is questionable in the first place.
It has equally been a mystery to me why Wolf Greenfield & Sacks, the patent law firm engaged by Whitehead to prosecute the Tuschl-I patent application on the behalf of Whitehead, Max Planck, MIT and UMass would seek to gain the benefit of inventive subject matter that obviously belonged to Max Planck only.
It is therefore no surprise then that MIT, Wolf Greenfield & Sacks, and finally The Whitehead have all decided after all that the legal exposure from the Tuschl Litigation does not make it worth to them any more to continue to support UMass' insistence on ownership over the use of 3’ overhangs in RNAi triggers and the discovery of efficient RNAi gene silencing in mammalian cells using short double-stranded RNAs by claiming the benefit of the '325 priority application filed by Max Planck in Europe.
Unless Zamore’s testimony will shock the field of RNAi, the testimonies of the 2 more impartial inventors named in Tuschl-I, namely Sharp and Bartel, make it clear that the 3’ overhang work was the accomplishment of Tuschl after he set up his lab at the Max Planck. This is also consistent with my view of RNAi history that is not only based on the publication history and authors on key papers, but has also been critically influenced by how the RNAi field in general has always felt about who was to be acknowledged for that body of work: Tuschl. Science is such a gossipy endeavor after all that I would have expected to have heard rumors if Tuschl wasn't the inventor of the 3’ overhung siRNA.
So now it seems like UMass is the last man standing, and unable to move forward with the Tuschl I patent application. The fact that UMass has not surrendered yet let’s me speculate that not only do they stand to lose future benefits under the Tuschl patents, but that they feel considerable pressure from Sirna Therapeutics-Merck. Understandably, given that the $1.1B value Merck placed on Sirna Therapeutics much depended on perceived access to the mammalian and 3’ overhang data. Should UMass never have been allowed to license IP which erroneously cross-referenced the patent application of another party? Or might the pressure be one day on former Sirna Therapeutics, many of who have left Sirna after the acquisition, should Merck believe that they have been misled?
A less conspirational explanation for this mess, of course, would be honest human mistakes, such as misunderstanding the rules for citing priority documents or scientists signing off on legal declarations that they do not have the time to read, much less fully understand. But with billions of dollars at stake, what started as honest mistakes may quickly become interpreted as, and actually also have led to ‘malpractice’ and ‘deceptive behavior’. Money.