NEWS RELEASE, 11/23/98
Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis commits
$25 million to support biotechnology research at UC Berkeley
By Jesus Mena and Robert Sanders, Public Affairs
BERKELEY -- The University of California, Berkeley and the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute, Inc. have agreed to create a unique long-term research collaboration that will keep UC Berkeley scientists and California farmers at the forefront of agricultural biotechnology.
Under the terms of the agreement between Novartis and the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology in the College of Natural Resources, Novartis will commit $25 million over five years to support basic research in the department in the area of agricultural genomics. It will also provide access to proprietary technology and DNA databases, which will significantly enhance the university's ability to do research at the forefront of plant genomics.
In return, Novartis scientists will work closely with UC Berkeley researchers, and the company will receive first rights to negotiate for a fraction - roughly 30-40 percent - of the discoveries made in the department. The fraction corresponds approximately to the proportion of the department's total research budget provided by Novartis, and will vary from year to year.
Novartis will pay patent costs, license fees, royalties and all other costs normally associated with the commercialization of research, but the university will own the patents and collect royalties on their use.
"This is the first, though experimental, step in what we hope will be a long and fruitful relationship," said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl. "Novartis brings significant intellectual assets as well as financial support to an important area of fundamental research."
"This alliance will enable us to exchange knowledge, share our resources, and facilitate the application of academic science to social well being," said President Steven P. Briggs of the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute, Inc. "Novartis wants to develop a joint vision with the Plant and Microbial Biology faculty to identify goals and work towards their achievement."
Berdahl emphasized that the agreement is an "experimental alliance" that will be monitored closely by the campus administration during its five-year course.
Novartis, a Swiss-based life sciences company with significant interests in California, is a world leader in biotechnology research and invests more than $2.5 billion in research and development annually. Through an independent charitable foundation called the Novartis Research Foundation, the company earlier this year announced a $600 million investment worldwide over the next ten years in plant genomics - one of the largest research initiatives in plant biotechnology ever undertaken. The first step was creation of the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute, whose main campus will be in San Diego.
Two years ago the College of Natural Resources set out to design a new approach to research collaborations with the private sector to augment the individual agreements faculty currently enter into with private companies, which generally target a particular research application. The goal was not simply to raise funds to support research, but to identify a private sector partner who would make a significant intellectual contribution to the university and support research in the public interest.
The department solicited proposals for research collaborations from six companies, of which four responded. Novartis's proposal stood out from the others because of the company's interest in safeguarding academic freedom.
"We made it quite clear that the culture and values of the university must be paramount," said Gordon Rausser, dean of the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley. "This is a valuable experiment, and we'll be monitoring it very closely to ensure that it produces synergies that enrich public interest research."
Among the safeguards is a six-member Advisory Committee to oversee the contract, made up of three UC Berkeley representatives and three Novartis representatives, as well as a five-member Research Committee to award the grants. The Research Committee will include three UC Berkeley faculty.
"Together these committees will monitor the university's and the public's interests and preserve an open research environment at UC Berkeley," said Joseph Cerny, UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Research.
In addition, the agreement allows either partner to cancel the contract with a year's notice.
Under the agreement, Novartis will provide the department with five million dollars a year for five years, to be awarded by the five-member research committee. The funds will have no restrictions on their use, and will go solely for non-targeted, basic research in plant genomics.
Novartis, in turn, will have first rights to license a fraction of the research developments in the department, whether sponsored by Novartis or by certain state or federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health that allow such arrangements. The fraction will be determined by the proportion of departmental research Novartis funds - a method of calculation recommended by National Institutes of Health guidelines regarding agreements like this.
Nevertheless, all developments will be patented by UC and UC will receive royalties from the license. The agreement also was drawn up to conform to all University of California policies.
A primary goal of the department and NADI will be to match plant genes with plant traits, such as the genes that control resistance to disease, development of the seed or response to light.
To facilitate this research, Novartis will provide access to patented, proprietary databases that include genetic information on crop plants, the bacteria, viruses and insects that attack them, and harmful as well as beneficial soil microbes. These resources range from gene sequences to information on metabolic pathways in plants. Novartis also will supply gene chips and other tools to help researchers assign a gene's role in the natural history of an organism.
"This agreement 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," added Bob Buchanan, professor and chair of plant and microbial biology. "This is a unique opportunity to facilitate cutting-edge research while enhancing training and teaching."
Despite the proprietary nature of the information and technology, Novartis recognizes that the open academic environment at UC Berkeley and the fact that it is a public institution make it impossible to assure the confidentiality of such information. As for publishing scientific results, Novartis will receive a manuscript 30 days before submission in order to review the findings. If Novartis elects to authorize UC Berkeley to patent the findings, an additional delay of up to 90 days may be granted. Publication preview is typical in most research contracts between the university and private businesses.
Eventually Rausser hopes California agribusiness groups will choose to participate in the agreement, since one of the ultimate beneficiaries of the research will be California's $27 billion agriculture industry.
"This agreement provides a unique opportunity for California agriculture," said Thomas F. DiMare, former chair of the Western Growers Association and the California Tomato Board. "Because the university is a public institution, farmers will have better and more cost effective access to agricultural biotechnology."
Other California agricultural groups were equally enthusiastic.
Faculty researchers in UC Berkeley's internationally recognized Department of Plant and Microbial Biology experiment with genetic engineering techniques to produce new crops and to make foods safer, cheaper and more nutritious. In recent years they have found ways to improve the baking qualities of bread, to make milk less allergenic and to help plants resist attack by pathogenic organisms.
These are precisely the areas on which the next wave of biotechnology research will focus, said Briggs, an internationally recognized expert in corn genomics. While the first wave of biotechnology breakthroughs dealt largely with production, the next wave will focus on food quality, safety and nutrition.
Five department faculty are members of the National Academy of Sciences; six are fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; three are fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and three are Guggenheim Fellows.
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