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Biotech giants settle suit

Genzyme, Biogen Idec reach accord with Columbia U.

Biotechnology giants Genzyme Corp. and Biogen Idec Inc. yesterday said they settled a lawsuit they brought against Columbia University, ending a closely watched legal fight over how far the school could go in claiming royalties on its research.

The companies said the settlement will let them continue to sell their drugs to treat multiple sclerosis and Gaucher disease based on a technology developed at Columbia in the 1970s.

Neither company nor the New York university would provide financial details. The battle over Columbia's rights to the technology now moves to Washington, where it is under review by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

The lawsuit just settled centered on research by Columbia professor Richard Axel, who received a Nobel Prize in Medicine last year. He created a way to splice bits of DNA into living cells to create human proteins, which became the basis of much of today's biotechnology manufacturing.

Over the years, Columbia has collected hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties from the drug industry, raising concerns among those who believe publicly funded research should be more accessible to commercial users. Biogen Idec, Genzyme, and others sued Columbia after the school in 2002 won a patent for the proteins derived from its research and sought additional royalties.

In November in federal District Court in Boston, Judge Mark L. Wolf dismissed most of the companies' claims after Columbia pledged it would not seek additional royalty payments. But the school kept the patent battle alive in Washington, and other legal issues remained, such as the extent of Columbia's promise not to sue. For example, in a February filing, Biogen Idec and Genzyme accused Columbia of ''unfair and deceptive trade practices."

The settlement, first disclosed in an order by Wolf dated Aug. 9, ends the chance the case could set broad precedents regarding how much patent protection universities can claim for old research, said John Thomas, a Georgetown University law professor who favors limiting the universities' patent rights.

''In terms of getting a definite ruling from the courts, this settlement could short-circuit that possibility," Thomas said.

Columbia does have the support of some Boston-area universities, which have also taken legal action to protect intellectual property developed on-campus.

Dan Quinn, a Genzyme spokesman, and Biogen Idec spokesman Jose Juves said that under the agreement the companies couldn't discuss the settlement terms or their motives for settling.

David I. Gindler, an attorney for Irell & Manella LLP in Los Angeles who represents Columbia, also wouldn't discuss the settlement.

Two other large biotechnology companies in California that sued Columbia over similar issues, Genentech Inc. and Amgen Inc., are also moving toward settlements in US District Court in Boston, according to legal filings and Columbia's attorney in the case.

Amgen's public affairs office said it couldn't immediately comment. A Genentech spokeswoman said the company wouldn't discuss pending litigation.

Daniel Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation in New York, a nonprofit group that wants more public access to the Columbia protein research -- and which prompted the patent office review -- said the settlement likely makes sense from a business standpoint, though it ends the chance for a favorable legal precedent. ''The companies have to do what's in their best interest even if that's not in the public interest," Ravicher said.

Ross Kerber can be reached at kerber@globe.com.

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