WASHINGTON, Jan 22 - Genomics firms are backing a recent plea by the biotech industry urging the Bush Administration to address ongoing patent and research priorities in the coming legislative year.
With Congress due to reconvene in Washington on Wednesday, and with the President's Fiscal 2003 Budget set for release less than two weeks later, the Biotechnology Industry Organization last week sent a letter to the White House asking Bush to consider several items on genomics firms' wish lists.
Among the requests-which range from issues like Medicare reform to farm legislation-is a plea to boost capacity at the US Patent and Trademark Office, which biotech companies have long complained lacks the resources to secure timely patents.
"We believe it is critical for your administration to take steps to ensure that the US Patent and Trademark Office has adequate funding in the years to come," read the letter to Bush, sent by BIO President Carl B. Feldbaum.
The request is not new. Biotech and pharmaceutical firms have been arguing for years for more funds for the patent office and for a change to the policy that allows applicants' user fees to be used for other government spending outside of the PTO.
But to small genomics firms, the issue seems to have more urgency than ever. Biotech firms currently have between 25,000 and 30,000 patents pending at PTO, 4,000 of which are DNA patents, according to Sharon Cohen, BIO's chief lobbyist.
Melody Henderson, vice president for intellectual property and licensing at Genaissance, said that her firm has "definitely over a thousand" patents currently under review at PTO. Meanwhile, the firm holds just six secured patents on haplotypes.
Many firms have complained that the PTO lacks the computer search capacity and the expertise to review complicated genomics patents, and Henderson said her company is one that would like to see an increase of the agency's annual $1.2 billion budget.
"At the minimum they should keep all the user fees" within the PTO, Henderson said.
PTO spokesperson Brigid Quinn told GenomeWeb that "the administration is firmly committed to ensuring that the agency has the resources it needs to carry out its mission. PTO will hire 700 new patent examiners in 2002, and "many of them will be assigned to biotechnology," she said.
BIO's letter also expressed concern that a proposed policy shift would have the National Institutes of Health add a for-profit focus to its licensing agreement practices. Some members of Congress have expressed a desire to see NIH collect more money from private companies that capitalized on basic research performed with taxpayer money.
This may seem like a curious initiative to genomics firms, especially young ones, that rely heavily on NIH-funded basic research because they lack the funds and capacity to perform it on their own.
Indeed, many firms in the genomics space are concerned that a for-profit philosophy at NIH could sully the open-ended, purely scientific approach that drives basic research at the agency now, said Noel Kelly, director of academic collaborations at Genomic Collaborative, in Blue Bell, Pa.
"The researchers in that setting now don't have to worry about the pressures of commercialization," said Kelly, who's company currently holds academic contracts with the NIH. "A change could upend the current good working relationship that we have" with the agency.
Most lobbyists and company officials agreed that it remains too early to predict just where genomics firms will end up this election year. The question on the minds of most in Washington this week is what will be included in the President's budget.
"We'll see February 4th when it's rolled out," Quinn said.