UC Berkeley's research deal still a hot issue

The partnership with Novartis supplied welcome funds but raised concern about control and secrecy.

By Edie Lau -- Bee Science Writer

Published Thursday, November 20, 2003

The deal was signed five years ago in an uproar. It expires Sunday with a whisper.

But the quiet by no means signifies peace over a controversial partnership struck between the University of California, Berkeley, and a multinational biotechnology company, Novartis.

The company gave researchers in Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology $25 million over five years and access to confidential company data in exchange for campus brainpower and first dibs on discoveries with moneymaking potential.

Supporters called it a creative way to obtain much-needed funding. Critics denounced it as a deal with the devil. The contract was questioned in the popular media, in scientific journals and in a state Senate hearing as a possible sign of too-cozy relationships between industry and academia.

As the unique partnership comes to a close, opinions remain passionately divided.

"I wish it would have gone on forever," said Robert Price, associate vice chancellor for research. "If this was supposed to be a showcase for how things could be done, it was a failure," said Jason Delborne, an environmental science and policy doctoral student who opposed the deal all along.

The collaboration produced few splashy results, good or bad. Generally, the company treaded lightly on the university scientists, not trying - as some had feared - to steer their research. Each of the 23 researchers who proposed projects received an award, ranging from $75,000 to $200,000 per year.

The contract also gave the company the right to ask researchers to delay publication or presentations of their work, which it did - but only infrequently. The absence of much secrecy, though, may have stemmed mostly from the fact that the company ended up laying claim to few campus inventions. To date, it has kept the option of taking to market only one discovery, related to thwarting food and pollen allergies.

On that subject, secrecy rules. The faculty member who made the discovery, Bob Buchanan, discussed it only in vague terms, citing the need for confidentiality.

Buchanan was chairman of the department when the agreement was forged, and helped shape it. He would say only that without Novartis' support, he would not have made the allergy discovery. He would not even disclose the amount of that financial support.

The impact of the agreement will get a fresh look next year. Lawrence Busch, a sociologist at Michigan State University, has been hired by the university to assess the deal's effects in the department, on the university and on major research universities.

Busch hopes to complete the review by early January.

Perhaps the only certain fact about the partnership between Berkeley and Novartis is that it didn't play out the way anyone expected.

Novartis doesn't even exist today in the same form, making a simple contract renewal all but impossible. Following the company's fortunes is like tracing a family tree laden with divorces and remarriages.

The Swiss company originally dealt in health care, farming and food. In 2000, two years into the contract with Berkeley - with rising consumer objections to genetically engineered food - Novartis spun off its agricultural division. The division became part of a new company, Syngenta.

Syngenta maintained the contract with Berkeley, but in late 2002, it closed the lab in La Jolla where scientists collaborating with Berkeley were housed, stunting the relationship.

Steven Briggs, the Novartis executive who founded the La Jolla lab and negotiated the Berkeley contract, said it was a good ride while it lasted.

"From my view, it was very successful," said Briggs, who now works at a San Diego biotech company named Diversa Corp.

Briggs said one of his aims was to jump-start his lab, which at the time had no staff: "It was just me and a telephone." By teaming with Berkeley, Briggs said, "I had an instant research program."

That alone made it worthwhile for Briggs, although he said the alliance would have benefited from a more stable business environment at Novartis.

When Briggs left the company last year, a Syngenta research manager in England, Simon Bright, became Berkeley's company liaison. Asked why so little intellectual property resulted from the deal, Bright cited recent changes in patent rules.

He said basic findings such as the identities and functions of genes no longer are eligible for patent. "The very fundamental things turn into more inspiration than intellectual property," he said.

Bright added that he will lay claim to a few more Berkeley discoveries, but not as many as expected. Early on, Novartis also considered building a laboratory on campus, to ease collaborations with faculty. University factions that disliked the Novartis deal were horrified by the prospect of a physical presence, and said so.

The lab was never built. And now, Syngenta will not extend the contract, although Bright said it plans to do projects with individual researchers.

It was the broad scope of the original contract that raised so many eyebrows in 1998. Relationships between industry and faculty are hardly new, but this arrangement swept up the entire Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. Over its five-year duration, only four out of about 26 full-time faculty opted out.

Donald Kaplan was one of the four. From start to finish, the plant biologist disagreed with giving one company first crack at university discoveries.

"What we do is in the public realm," he said. "Why should they get some advantage to get that information by buying it? I think it's corrupt."

Other faculty had reservations, but in the spirit of experimentation, they participated anyway. Norman Terry, an environmental plant physiologist, said it turned out to be a chance worth taking. Terry received $75,000 a year for five years, which he used to genetically engineer Indian mustard plants to more quickly clean up selenium pollution. (Selenium is an element that has accumulated in toxic concentrations in Central Valley soils because of farm irrigation runoff.)

Meanwhile, Novartis was virtually invisible. "I never had anyone looking over my shoulder saying, you've got to do this or you've got to do that," Terry said. Louise Glass joined the Berkeley faculty a year into the Novartis contract. She welcomed the money and found it even more valuable than she expected.

Glass studies a type of fungi that produce compounds that can be useful as medicine. She explores networks formed by the fungi as they grow. Using $200,000 in Novartis funds over two years, Glass learned enough about the organisms to win a three-year, $600,000 National Science Foundation grant.

Faculty throughout the department parlayed the Novartis money into bigger grants from other sources, according to Robert Price, UC Berkeley's associate vice chancellor for research. At the start of the agreement, Novartis funding constituted 42 percent of the department's outside funding. Now it makes up only 27 percent, Price said.

If faculty were largely pleased by the Novartis alliance, graduate students were ambivalent. For them, the deal was more bruising, enduringly so. More than a year into the contract, the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education surveyed 35 students and found a majority still angry about being excluded from the negotiations that led to the alliance.

Nicholas Kaplinsky, a plant biologist at the Carnegie Institution in Stanford, was a doctoral student at Berkeley at the time of the Novartis deal.

At the beginning, he was angry. Someone asked him to represent students at a news conference touting the agreement. Wary of corporate funding of research, he didn't go.

Later, Kaplinsky found the collaboration professionally valuable. Using access to Novartis' proprietary information on rice genetics and funds awarded to his faculty adviser, Kaplinsky looked for similarities in rice and corn DNA.

His findings ended up published in a prestigious journal. At the same time, Kaplinsky was hit by political fallout.

Twice, fields of conventional corn he planted to study the genetics of ear development were destroyed. The vandals left a note referring to Novartis. Kaplinsky still has trouble sorting it all out.

"If the amount of effort put into finding the corporate money and dealing with the political issues that came out of it had gone into increasing public funding," he said, "I wonder if that wouldn't have been a better solution."

About the Writer The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or elau@sacbee.com.