In the biotechnology race, there are many entrants but few leaders. One major uncertainty is the untested validity of many patents for new biotechnology, a problem that troubles Damon Biotech Inc., a small company in Needham Heights, Mass.
Damon Biotech has combined two new technologies that could propel it to a position among the leaders in the field. Both involve the laboratory production of antibodies, proteins made by the body to fight invasions of disease-causing microorganisms.
One of the advances, exclusively licensed from Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a technique that exploits a particular sequence of nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA) that cause cells to produce much greater quantities of antibodies than they would be otherwise. Scientists fuse this "enhancer sequence" to other genes and put them into antibody-producing cells. This sequence triggers antibody-producing cells to make other types of useful proteins at very high yields.
The company, a subsidiary of Damon Corp., a medical products and services company, plans to combine this technique with another technology known as Encapcel. After adding the enhancer sequence to antibody-producing cells, scientists will enclose the cells inside microscopic capsules.
"For some reason, the cells grow to much higher levels inside these capsules than in any other cell-culture technique," says Harvey Lodish, a member of Damon Biotech's scientific board who is also a professor of biology at MIT and a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. The result of the combined techniques is a double whammy: The enhancer sequence makes each cell produce the desired protein, and Encapcel increases the number of cells by a factor of 10 or more.
Although this sounds promising for Damon Biotech, a serious problem clouds the picture -- one that affects other companies reporting advances in biotechnology. The enhancer sequence itself is not patentable, because it is a naturally occurring phenomenon; only the process for using the sequence gets protection. "If another company can come up with a different process, it might be able to bypass the patent," says Regina Wiedenski, a biotechnology analyst for Adams, Harkness & Hill Inc., a brokerage firm in Boston. Even so, she says, "It gives [Damon Biotech] a good boost -- for right now at least." In biotechnology, you have to drink quickly because the fizz doesn't last long on the champagne.