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Intellectual Property

Researcher sues Harvard for drug royalties

Chemistry postdoc says he wants his share of $20 million that Merck paid for compounds treating leukemia

by Marc S. Reisch
May 9, 2017

A former Harvard University postdoctoral researcher has sued the university for his share of $20 million that Merck & Co. paid Harvard in 2016 to license preclinical compounds to treat leukemia. At the time, the license fee was called the largest ever for a technology developed at Harvard.

A photo of Matthew Shair.
Credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

The researcher, Alexander Arefolov, worked in the lab of Harvard chemist Matthew Shair between 2011 and 2015. He claims that he was intentionally left off a patent covering the compounds, which are derivatives of cortistatin A.

The patent, which Harvard applied for in 2016, names five scientists, including Shair, as inventors. It details steps to synthesize derivatives of cortistatin A, a complex, difficult-to-isolate natural product from sea sponges.

The suit, filed in U.S. federal court for the district of Massachusetts, doesn’t specify the amount of damages Arefolov seeks. However, his attorney, Brian D. O’Reilly, tells C&EN that Arefolov should at a minimum get his share of the $6 million that went to the patent inventors as well as any future milestone payments Harvard may receive.

At Harvard, inventors are entitled to about 35% of any royalties or license fees stemming from a patent. The university keeps the rest.

According to the suit, Shair invited Arefolov, a Boston University-trained Ph.D. chemist, to join his group at Harvard to work on cortistatin A. Arefolov’s suit claims he was the only chemist devoting 100% of his time to the project and that he took the job at lower pay compared to what he would get in industry “in the hope that he would receive patent royalties from his work.”

The suit claims Shair told Arefolov that “inventors at Harvard University receive 35% of any license fee. If the project is successful, you will receive your fair share.” The suit says Arefolov “believed that Dr. Shair would look out for Dr. Arefolov’s best interest and ensure his contributions were recognized in any future patent.”

Arefolov, the suit charges, “was a part of the creative team that created theoretical as well as actual cortistatin A analogs,” yet “Dr. Shair excluded Dr. Arefolov as an inventor to increase [Shair’s] monetary return.”

Arefolov isn’t the first chemist to complain of unfair treatment in the handing out of license fees won by a Harvard research team.

In 2013, O’Reilly, Arefolov’s attorney, filed a $10 million suit against the school and chemistry professor Andrew G. Myers on behalf of former graduate student Mark Charest. Charest alleged he was cheated out of royalties due to him for his role in creating a synthetic route to tetracycline antibiotics. Harvard said last year that it settled with Charest “on mutually agreeable terms.”



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