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The relationship between universities and industry


Biotech companies: Celltech and the Genetic Systems Corporation
Avrion Mitchison Scientist
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To begin with there were these meetings with noisy people like me and Len Herzenberg and Gus Nossal talking away from the platform, and some very meek and mild biotech company people sitting at the back having paid a handsome fee to come into the meeting. Very different now, it's- there are huge areas of research, cytokine research, for example, where it is inconceivable to have a big meeting without platform presentations from the biotech companies, and some of the very best work being done there, notably, I think, by the Little Group in California which pushed cytokine of research along so far. So, my own involvement was pretty much by chance. I was invited to join the Celltech Science Council, and I was also invited by Bob Lewinsky to join Genetic Systems Corporation in Seattle, in both cases as an advisor. The- Celltech has had a long and not altogether happy history, as a kind of flagship of biotech development in the UK, but it was started jointly between the MRC and industry. As soon as it showed any signs of standing on its own feet, the MRC pulled out, rightly, and left bio- Celltech, to get on as best it could. As the years passed Celltech became known as a company which did have the largest research group in bio-technology in the UK but did not have products, and it has been very slow to bring products to market. It has brought one or two along and it now has quite a promising development, but you cannot say more than that. But eventually it has been sold to- to a Belgian pharmaceutical company in the last few months. I- I enjoyed my contact with Celltech, both in the Science Council and personally, and I recall these days with great pleasure the Celltech annual dinner, where the founders, the scientific founders of Celltech, had been employed in an American pharmaceutical branch, they had a research branch, near London, and that branch had been closed down by one Donald Rumsfeld when he became the- the CEO, and so Celltech- there was- basically their after dinner conversation was about the dreadfulness of Donald Rumsfeld. Did not mean much to me at the time, it does- it means more now. Anyway, what has Celltech done for science and has it benefited science or has it benefited British industry? I think- I am afraid the jury is still out on that. It tried all sorts of things, it should have been in on- or it was in very early on, TNF, Tumour Necrosis Factor, antibodies to TNF. It was known that antibodies to TNF were likely to do something dramatic because they did so in mice, particularly in cerebral malaria in mice. Celltech made a mistake, it got locked up in a- with a large pharmaceutical company, Bayer, who thought that, well between them they thought- we could not put all the blame on Bayer's shoulders- that septic shock would be a good target for anti TNF therapy, so after expensive clinical trials it was abandoned although in certain forms of septic shock as a TNF treatment probably is effective although not very effective. When Mark Feldman and Tiny Maini got together, particularly Mark Feldman, with their proposition that anti TNF therapy might be effective in chronic inflammatory disease in man, particularly in rheumatoid arthritis, Celltech may have made a terrible mistake- well it did make objectively a terrible mistake in saying well we have got our own ideas of anti TNF, and so we won't support you. What a mistake, because the anti TNF therapy did work in rheumatoid arthritis, it has been an enormous success worldwide, made a lot of money for Centrecore, and TNF missed out on that. Still, that's the way industry works. How about Genetic Systems? Genetic Systems is a somewhat different matter. Lewinsky was a real entrepreneur, and he thought things could be done with monoclonal antibodies, various things, and I think at the end of the day, none of them worked out, but he was a much smarter businessman than Celltech and he had different aims, he wanted to a) make a lot of money, so all his Science Council made quite a lot of money out of it- I did, a lot less than a million dollars, but a not insubstantial sum.

Avrion Mitchison, the British zoologist, is currently Professor Emeritus at University College London and is best known for his work demonstrating the role of lymphocytes in tumour rejection and for the separate and cooperative roles of T- and B-lymphocytes in this and other processes.

Listeners: Martin Raff

Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death.



Listen to Martin Raff at Web of Stories



Duration: 6 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008