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Novartis Collaboration Offers Academics Opportunities In Bioinformatics Research

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BERKELEY, Calif.--The University of California here and Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute, based in LaJolla, Calif., last month announced what they called a "precedent-setting collaboration between industry and academia" that will expand bioinformatics opportunities for Berkeley scientists. The arrangement will also cover such other areas of genomics as the construction of gene libraries, sequencing, and mapping.

The collaboration is aimed at accelerating the pace of discovery and product commercialization in the areas of agriculture and nutrition.

The institute will gain access to Berkeley's scientific community and have the right to negotiate licenses to certain patentable discoveries, while the university will be able to take advantage of the institute's genomics expertise, technology, and other resources to place its scientists on the cutting edge of agricultural biotech research. The five-year, $25 million deal is the culmination of a two-year effort by the university's College of Natural Resources to create a new approach to research collaborations with the private sector. Novartis's proposal was selected over those of three competitors because the company emphasized an interest in safeguarding academic freedom, the university said.

The deal was signed by Steven Briggs, the institute's president, and Joe Cerny, the university's vice-chancellor for research. Both officials said they hope it is only the first step toward a broader partnership.

In addition to Novartis's $25 million, which will be apportioned in annual $5 million grants to fund basic research, the university will gain access to the institute's proprietary databases of sequence and mapping information. Novartis will also supply gene chips and other genomics tools to Berkeley scientists. Ultimately, the partners plan to generate databases that match genes with specific plant traits, such as resistance to disease, development of seed, or response to light.

Bob Buchanan, professor and chairman of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, noted that the deal "gives the department access to important cutting-edge research capabilities, resources, and technologies that will allow us to push out the frontiers in this fast-changing field of knowledge. This is a unique opportunity to facilitate cutting-edge research while enhancing training and teaching."

Novartis's payment equals approximately 30-40 percent of the department's total research budget, and the company will gain first rights to negotiate for a corresponding fraction of the discoveries made in the department, regardless of whether the discoveries were specifically funded with the Novartis grants. The exact size of the fraction will vary from year to year. Novartis will pay patent costs, license fees, royalties, and other costs normally associated with commercializing research, but the university will own the patents and collect royalties on their use.

As for publication of results of the research, Novartis will receive manuscripts 30 days prior to submission in order to review the findings. If the company authorizes the university to patent the findings, an additional delay of up to 90 days may be granted. The intellectual property arrangements follow guidelines issued by the US National Institutes of Health.

"This is the first, though experimental, step in what we hope will be a long and fruitful relationship," commented Robert Berdahl, the university's chancellor. "Novartis brings significant intellectual assets as well as financial support to an important area of fundamental research. We are particularly pleased to work with a private firm that has demonstrated exceptional concern for the special obligations of a public university."

Because the concept and scope of the agreement are unprecedented, the alliance will be monitored closely by the campus administration over its five-year course, he said. The deal also has a provision allowing either party to cancel with a year's notice.

Briggs remarked, "This pioneering partnership further strengthens our cutting-edge position in plant and molecular biotechnology and uniquely positions the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute at the forefront of agricultural discovery. As we continue to build the institute, this partnership will be key to our advancement of knowledge."

The institute, a division of the Swiss-based life sciences company Novartis, was created in July with a $600 million, 10-year grant from the Novartis Research Foundation. Its new campus here will eventually house 180 researchers. In September Briggs told BioInform that academic partnerships are one of three key sources of intellectual talent and skilled labor that the institute planned to tap; the others are its own staff and technology vendors.

He said the institute intends to form "three broad academic collaborations that are at least department-wide, with what we think are the world's leading academic institutions in the areas in which we're interested." The Berkeley deal is the first of the partnerships to be announced.

The arrangements would "provide greater resources for discovery to those institutions, and I would expect that it would accelerate their rate and quality of publication," Briggs added. He noted that the collaborations will also give academic researchers the benefits of an industrial-quality research environment without their having to leave the university setting.

In 1996 the College of Natural Resources began exploring options to revise the school's collaborations with industry in order to augment individual agreements faculty were signing with private companies. Those deals typically targeted a specific research application, but the university wanted to go farther, identifying private-sector partners who would both make a significant intellectual contribution to the university and support research in the public interest.

The Department of Plant and Microbial Biology solicited proposals for collaborations from six companies and received four responses. In the end, Novartis's was chosen because of the company's respect for the university's priorities, according to Gordon Rausser, dean of the College of Natural Resources.

"We made it quite clear that the culture and values of the university must be paramount," he explained. "This is a valuable experiment and we'll be monitoring it very closely to ensure that it produces synergies that enrich public-interest research." The safeguards include an advisory committee to oversee the contract, composed of three representatives each from the university and from Novartis.

There will also be a five-member research committee, including three Berkeley faculty members, to award the annual $5 million grants. The funds are unrestricted and will be used for nontargeted, basic research in plant genomics, according to university officials.

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