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Biotech industry funds bumper crop of UC Davis research

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Shhhh ... It's a company secret

“We found the secret of life,” Francis Crick exclaimed to patrons of the Eagle Pub in 1953, announcing to all who would listen that he had discovered the structure of DNA.

That culture of openness, long a hallmark of higher education, appears to be a victim of the biotech age. Between increasing competition for grant money, the lure of license fees and company sponsorships, some of that collegiality has disappeared.

Indeed, a recent biomedical research review showed that companies sometimes even deny professors access to the results of their own experiments.

“Science in general now is getting more guarded,” said Elizabeth Maga, an assistant research biologist at UC Davis who has worked on company-funded projects.

One of Maga's colleagues, animal-science professor James Murray, is preparing a research grant agreement with a company. But don't ask him for details. “I can't talk to you about that,” Murray said.

A few years ago, a job candidate for the agricultural college gave a formal presentation about his research. Prof.Professor John Labavitch, a UCD horticulture specialist, recalled that the candidate piqued everyone's interest when he said he'd worked on some important advances in plant science. When pressed for details, however, the candidate begged off, .pleading “company secrets.”

“We would want to have somebody on our faculty who (could) save the world,” Labavitch said, “but he said, 'I can't tell you what it is.'”

For the record, Labavitch said the clammed-up candidate didn't get the job.

- Mike Lee


Discoveries kept secret

Companies aren't looking just for information when they fund UC Davis work. Often, they're hungry for valuable discoveries, too - and seek first rights to them in research agreements.

Gepts recalled one such proposal he turned down as agronomy department chairman. “A professor in the department wanted to go into a (research) agreement with Monsanto,” Gepts said. “If he found something, he had to let them know. They held the rights to pursue it. In effect, he would have worked for them. I felt that was not appropriate.”

The agreements also typically call for industry-funded discoveries to be kept secret - at least until companies can examine them for their profit potential. Traditionally, scientists have published their findings and worried about business details later, if at all.

“When one of my experiments worked, I literally ran down the hall to tell other people,” said Margaret Mellon, who received her doctorate in molecular biology at the University of Virginia in the 1970s.

“Nobody does that anymore,” said Mellon, now director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Now people have their lab notebooks locked up in drawers.”

Company funding for agricultural research is not new, of course. Syngenta, for instance, has a long-term relationship with most of the nation's major agricultural colleges. “It's been very beneficial for us, and hopefully for the universities as well, to have an exchange of information,” said Mike Moss, director of North American research for the Swiss-based biotech and chemical company.

Nor do companies stop at funding research. Commonly, they tap professors as consultants. Sometimes they pay for their travel, too.

In January, Monsanto flew a few dozen university researchers from around the country to Phoenix for a summit on a major new biotech product expected in 2005: Roundup-resistant alfalfa.

Dan Putnam, a UC Davis alfalfa authority, is not apologetic about accepting the free ride to Arizona. He said it allowed him to share with the company his concerns that excessive spraying of Roundup could backfire - making weeds more resistant to the chemical.

“They have an opportunity to give us their point of view, but that doesn't mean that we have to buy it,” Putnam said.

Most industry contributions to UC Davis researchers are modest, ranging from $1,000 to $50,000. “It's very unlikely that a scientist is going to sell his soul for these kinds of dollars,” said Neal Van Alfen, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

But industry money does come in larger sums. Overall, corporate gifts for all kinds of agriculture research at UC Davis can reach $10 million annually. In good years, that includes nearly $2 million from companies dealing in seeds and biotechnology.

In addition, company research grants to the ag college - those explicitly tied to specific projects - have waxed and waned with the economy over the last decade, amounting to roughly 4 percent of the $57 million the college received in outside grants in 2003-04. Most of the money - about three-quarters - comes from the state and federal governments.

Peter Rosset, former director of the nonprofit Oakland group, Food First, said companies don't have to give a bundle of money to get universities to focus on their priorities. “Industry comes in, (and) provides money that is desperately needed, - to turn taxpayer-funded infrastructure to their needs,” said Rosset, now a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. “They can skim the cream off.”

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Gene giants have wide influence

If you're looking for the straight scoop on biotech, chances are you're in for a long search.

Not only are many major universities tightly tied to the industry, so are several of the most of the widely quoted ag think tanks and public information groups. Yet their names might lead you to believe they are impartial operations.

Take the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, famous for glowing forecasts about the potential for biotechnology to reduce pesticide use. It's funded partly by large biotech companies.

How about the Council for Biotechnology Information? Its members are a similar cast of corporations.

Ditto for the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, which even federal agencies cite as a principal source for statistics on the worldwide spread of biotech crops. In California, the industry's face is the Western Plant Health Association, which represents farm chemical companies, some of which deal in biotech crops, too.

The reach of the gene giants can be even more subtle. For instance, Monsanto sponsors a program with the National Association of Wheat Growers to provide “leadership training for a whole new group of wheat leaders.” Its focus: biotechnology and the environment.

- Mike Lee


A maze of policies

Professors who work with industry navigate a labyrinth of UC policies aimed at keeping industries from exerting too much influence over research. Those policies - overseen by a special conflict-of-interest committee at UC Davis - touch upon everything from requiring professors to report financial interest in companies funding their research to deciding how much time they may spend consulting on the side.

Determinations often are a judgment call.

For instance, when Bo Lonnerdal, a UC Davis nutrition professor, reported receiving $24,000 in outside income from consulting with a Sacramento biotechnology company in 2000, he filled out a conflict committee form that asked:

“How are you keeping your obligations to the (company) separate and distinct from your obligations to the university, particularly student mentorship?”

Lonnerdal replied, “My obligations to the (company) sponsor I fulfill late evenings and weekends. They do not involve students at all.”

The committee found no problem with that arrangement.

“The policies - if they are adhered to - are good policies,” said Chancellor Vanderhoef. “The problem is it's very easy to slip across the line.”

Those policies were tested in 2002 by a $778,000 project that mingled state and industry dollars and involved an unusual biotechnology product - genetically modified goats.

Working with a small Bay Area biotechnology company, Pangene Inc., UC Davis researchers were attempting to jigger goat genes so the animals would produce higher-protein milk - important for cheese production. They also aimed to prove a new technique for inserting genetic material into a targeted spot in the animals' DNA, rather than relying on hit-and-miss methods.

“That was the holy grail,” said Gary Anderson, chairman of the animal science department at Davis, who helped create the transgenic goats.

Two years later, two of the goats - including the placid Peppercorn - live on at Davis' butter-yellow goat research barn, and researchers hope one day they can afford to finish what Pangene money started.

The process is expensive - a transgenic goat costs about $35,000 to create - but a UC Davis grant proposal said results would “have a great impact on ... California, the United States and the world.”

Pangene had made a down payment on the research of $70,000 and also had offered perks to professors Gary Anderson and James Murray, who oversaw the project: 20,000 shares of company stock each. The professors paid next to nothing - 1 cent a share, or $200 each. The privately held company valued its stock at $3 a share - which would have made the professors' investments worth $60,000 each.

The professors reported their holdings to the campus conflict-of-interest committee, which allowed them to keep their shares.

Anderson and Murray both say their equity was so small that they weren't concerned about the ties. “I have never thought of it in terms of financial interest,” Murray said. “They were like an honorarium for being on (Pangene's) advisory board.”

But someone did wonder about the relationship. Atop one conflict-of- interest committee document, a hand-written query on a yellow sticky note asked: “Why did the committee conclude there was no conflict?”

The source of that dissent remains a mystery. When contacted by The Bee, none of the six people on the committee at the time recalled penning the note; most said UC Davis is conservative about managing possible conflicts of interest and that the professors' holdings weren't large enough to warrant action.

Related Graphic

Complex connections

Click image to see more about the complex relationship between UC Davis and Pangene Corp.

University researchers usually are barred from having a “significant” financial interest in the outcome of their research. But there is some leeway, according to Mikal Saltveit, the committee chairman.

“We have to balance preventing any appearance of conflict of interest with the ability of people to actually work with industry and the funding agencies,” Saltveit said.

At Stanford University's Center for Biomedical Ethics, associate director Mildred K. Cho finds such arrangements worrisome. “There is more incentive for bias to creep in when there is a potential relationship between results and the financial gain of the researcher,” she said.

“It's a question everyone is struggling with: Where to draw the line?”

Ultimately, Anderson and Murray came up empty, in part because Pangene ran out of money, reneging on more than $450,000 it had promised to pay UC.

Deadline after deadline had passed for nearly a year while $165,000 in public money flowed into the project.

Then, finally, someone in the office of the UC Davis vice chancellor for research flagged the troubled account, prompting officials to take a closer look.

Biologist Elizabeth Maga tends a goat at UC Davis Biologist Elizabeth Maga tends a goat at UC Davis. Her goat genetics study was put on hold in 2002 when Pangene Inc. failed to pay for the research as promised. Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

“Any progress (on) Pangene's enormous default?” wrote Jane Lee Chien, a UC grants officer in Berkeley in an e-mail to a colleague at UC Davis. She heard back the next day. “We have major problems with this project,” wrote Jess Phelan, a UC Davis grants officer. “There appear to be lots of strange things happening.”

On March 26, 2002, the Discovery Grants office canceled the Pangene project. Efforts to reach former officials at Pangene for comment were not successful.

UC Davis research biologist Elizabeth Maga, a key player in the Pangene project, found her work put on indefinite hold. Now she tends the two goats, their numbers insufficient to do her research.

“I think we need to be a little more vigilant about what money the companies have and what they say they have,” she said.


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