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My time as President of the Zoological Society


The relationship between universities and industry
Avrion Mitchison Scientist
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There is a bad side and a good side. The good side is that universities can benefit enormously from- from co-operation. In this- the very late phase of my scientific life, just in the last year or two, we in University College- and that is Rene Creusot who is the chap who did the work, and Benny Chain who did most of the intellectual input, but together with me, did what we think is a pretty definitive experiment on co-operation between T-cells and the autonomous nature of the cluster of lymphocytes around the T-cells, around the dendritic cells, the regulatory unit- and we may talk about that later- but there's no doubt that that project would not have- have got through without the help and input, intellectual and financial, of GSK. GSK backed the project, we got some support from the Wellcome Foundation but not enough to carry it through, and GSK was an enormous help, and the post doc who was doing the work was to-ing and fro-ing between GSK and University College. You know, on a very small scale that was a model of how- how it should work. And it's also- you know, it provides insights into the way the pharmaceutical industry works, because that whole group which were hard at work on regulatory mechanisms in- within the immune system, have been switched right out of that in the last few months and they are now told to spend their time making monoclonal antibodies because GSK have decided that regulatory intervention isn't the way to do it. That, of course, is a problem for people in industry - they are doing something interesting and then a few months later it turns out that they may be doing something else interesting, but they are not doing what- what they were interested in to begin with. What about the different rules of the game in industry in terms of secrecy and freedom of expression of new results, and so on? Is that a problem? I have not noticed that conspicuously. I think that Dnax, the Californian company which did so much for cytokine research set a very good example of minimal secrecy and maximum interchange with universities for people going in on post docs and coming out again, and I don't think they ever took graduate students, but short of taking graduate students they were, I would say, perhaps better participants in- in the progress of science than some research institutes in- in Europe which run pretty much on their own. So I think a good American biotech company with information flowing in and out sets a pretty good example. Suppose you were on the advisory board of a company and learned something very important under the conditions of secrecy that you were working under as an advisory board that affected a student or post doc project in your own laboratories, what do you do then? Fair question. I think it depends on the level of the information. If it is something of a- if it's really important, it is probably a pretty general piece of information and the company will know that it's not practical to hold people very tightly to secrecy, they- well, I expect- I think one should not disclose what one has learned directly from the company but there's bound to be-whatever the company knows will be overtaken by somebody else within a matter of months, perhaps weeks even. If it's a minor technical part- point, I have never come across in my interactions with biotech have any difficulty in disclosing them. You know GSK were, in the projects that Benny Chain and I were interested in, knew things about- knew things about how to use a gene gun that other people did not, they knew things about how to run ELISA single cell counts- cytocount scales better than we did but they said, oh, come and use our facilities if that is what you want to do.

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: 5 minutes

Date story recorded: June 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008