The prospect of a patent war was raised by Molecular Biosystems Friday, the day after the San Diego company received rights to certain chemical compounds in an emerging and potentially lucrative area of biotechnology called antisense oligonucleotides.
Molecular Biosystems hailed the patent, which it applied for in 1981, as giving it a "broad coverage" of antisense compounds. But three other antisense firms and one biotechnology analyst were dismissive, with one executive likening the patent to Ford Motor Co. claiming rights to "all the automobiles on the road."
The patent's eventual significance notwithstanding, news of the award sent Molecular Biosystems shares up $3.25 in Thursday New York Stock Exchange trading to close at $32.25, a record high for the company. Molecular Biosystems shares were unchanged in Friday trading.
Antisense oligonucleotides are chemicals made from genetic materials that scientists hope will someday provide treatments for diseases that are now incurable. The first antisense drugs may be years away from the market, but several start-up biotechnology firms, and some large pharmaceutical manufacturers are aggressively developing products.
In an interview, Molecular Biosystems President Vincent Frank said his company soon may go after biotechnology companies, which he declined to name, that he says are infringing on its newly won patent. The patent gives his company exclusive rights to "a very significant and important part of antisense technology," he said.
"It's fair to say we have information with respect to who might be infringing and who may not," Frank said. "We aren't out on a campaign to nail anybody, but certainly to the extent we can demonstrate there is any infringement, we will move to protect the patent."
But Stanley Crooke, chief executive of Isis Pharmaceuticals in Carlsbad, described the patent as "irrelevant," saying it covers an area of antisense oligonucleotides that his company once considered but decided not to pursue.
"We are working on hundreds of different types of chemicals, none of them equivalent to the chemical that was on that (Molecular Biosystems) patent." Crooke said. "We believe the ones we are working on have dramatically higher potential. I frankly don't understand their public posture," Crooke said in reference to Molecular Biosystems' claim to "broad coverage" of technology.
Founded in 1989, Isis has yet to receive any patents for its technology, although Crooke said it has filed about 40 patent applications at the U.S. Patent Office. The Molecular Biosystems patent covers "one class, and we are not working on that class and therefore we are not affected by that patent, and I am unaware of any antisense company that is," Crooke said.
Still, the Molecular Biosystems patent sent shares of Isis Pharmaceuticals down $1.50 to $16.25 in Thursday over-the-counter trading, rebounding by $1.25 on Friday to close at $17.50. Isis raised $25 million in an initial public stock offering in May. Isis took the unusual step of issuing a press release Friday saying it was not concerned about the impact of the Molecular Biosystems patent.
Thomas Adams, chairman of Genta of San Diego, an antisense biotechnology company that received a patent for an antisense compound in 1986, said Molecular Biosystems' patent "doesn't cover anything that I'm aware of that any of the major antisense companies are doing. It's curious they put out a press release in a field they are not working in."
Molecular Biosystems is known mainly as a developer of Albunex, an imaging contrast agent that may be used in ultrasound diagnostic tests, if the federal Food and Drug Administration approves. Frank said the company has no plans to develop an antisense drug but is considering selling patent rights to outside drug companies.
Genta last month filed for FDA permission to begin clinical tests of the first therapeutic antisense drug. Genta's drug is designed to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia.
Gilead Sciences of Foster City in the San Francisco Bay Area said Friday that apparently no one at the company was aware that the patent had been issued to Molecular Biosystems.
"That should tell you something," said the source who asked not to be named. "We have lots of people here whose job it is to track these kinds of issues."
Teena L. Lerner, a biotechnology analyst with Shearson Lehman Hutton of New York, said she was skeptical about the significance of the Molecular Biosystems patent because antisense technology "is not the kind of field where any one company can cover the waterfront with patents. Biotechnology is very broad, and I don't think any one company can defend having a patent that would cover everything."