A former researcher at Genentech Inc. of South San Francisco has testified that he secretly removed a bacterial clone from a lab he had recently left at the University of California (UC), San Francisco, and transferred it to Genentech. That clone, according to court testimony filed last month, helped lead to one of Genentech's early achievements as a start-up company in 1979: a patent for the production of human growth hormone (HGH) by bacterial synthesis.
The shocking testimony came from Peter Seeburg, now acting director of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Seeburg was appearing as a witness for UC in a civil suit against Genentech, a court battle that has been stewing for several years. Alleging that Genentech has been violating UC's own patent on growth hormone, the university is asking the court to award damages of about $400 million, according to a UC attorney. This is what UC would have earned, the university calculates, if Genentech had paid HGH license fees. In addition, the university is asking for triple damages, on grounds that Genentech's actions were "willful."
Seeburg testified that he decided to use the clones he had developed at UC to get a more complete genetic sequence that could be put in bacteria for mass production. Genentech was awarded a patent for this technique in 1982. To cover up the deed, Seeburg admitted in court that he published false "technical" data in a 1979 Nature paper on how Genentech staffers cloned the DNA sequence it patented.
Genentech, which began to present its own evidence on 3 May, denies that it infringed the UC patent. Although company officials were not available to comment, trial transcripts indicate that their attorneys denied that they took or encouraged anyone to take material from UC labs.
Only about half the evidence has been presented so far in this trial, and there could be more surprises before the end. Barring an early settlement, this complicated dispute will go to the jury for a decision by the end of the month.