NEW YORK, March 3 - By now, most people are familiar with the lawsuit MJ Research filed against Applied Biosystems, Caltech, and others charging that the four-color automated sequencer patent is invalid. Key to MJ's argument is the claim that the people listed as inventors -- Lee Hood, Lloyd Smith, brothers Mike and Tim Hunkapiller, and Kip Connell -- knowingly left off the name of Henry Huang, now a little-known virologist at
By MJ's estimates, each of the principals on the patent has raked in more than $1 million in royalties from a series of Caltech-owned patents covering the technology. When MJ filed its suit in September 2000, Huang did not take legal action himself -- and even if MJ won its suit, he stood to gain nothing.
But two weeks ago, Huang, a
Neither Huang's nor Caltech's attorneys could be reached for comment today.
Huang spent much of his time in Lee Hood's lab trying to design an automated DNA sequencer. He experimented with various techniques but never built a functional instrument before leaving for a teaching position at
By the time Caltech and ABI announced their working sequencer in June 1986, Huang assumed it was completely different from his efforts and didn't even review the patent at the time. Now that he's looked into it, he said, the main points of the patent -- optical detection process, fluorescent dyes, four colors in one lane, software to capture data and convert it to sequence -- "are the key concepts that I had come up with pretty much before the summer of 1982," Huang told Genome Technology for an article last year. "It looks awfully like what I had drawn [then]."
According to an ABI spokeswoman, Mike Hunkapiller said Huang never worked with fluorescent detection, and Tim Hunkapiller said numerous reviews have satisfied investigators that the invention is rightfully theirs.
Huang claimed that when he left, "none of the people involved [at the lab] had any expertise in sequencing DNA nor had thought about it much." But less than a month and a half after Huang's departure, the Hunkapillers and Smith signed an invention disclosure, witnessed by Hood, for the automated DNA sequencer.
If Huang wins his lawsuit, it would mean more than a loss of money from ABI and the patent holders. Huang's work relied on federal funds, which at the time meant that any inventions of his would belong -- and have technically belonged all this time -- to the federal government.
"They knew that Henry invented the sequencer before the Bayh-Dole Act and therefore the government owned the whole thing," said Allen Foster, attorney for MJ. "They didn't want Henry's name anywhere close to it. ... By the time they filed that invention disclosure, they were very aware that this was going to be big."