Local biotech FIrm ZymoGenetics is suing local biotech firm Immunex for patent infringement. In a lawsuit filed in federal court earlier this year, ZymoGenetics has claimed that Immunex's blockbuster drug Enbrel illegally violates six ZymoGenetics patents.

The trial isn't scheduled to begin until February 2003, but last week the companies showed up in court to give federal judge Barbara Rothstein a tutorial on the complex technical issues at play in the case. (Can you say immunoglobulin light-chain sequencing, dimeric fusion proteins, or synthesis immunology? Indeed, just the court exhibits of the patents in question constitute a stack of papers two inches thick.)

ZymoGenetics, with 2001 sales of $17 million, is demanding a portion of Immunex's future Enbrel profits as compensation for the alleged patent infringement. Enbrel is an arthritis drug projected to be one of the top-selling drugs in the world, with sales of up to $5 billion by 2005. In fact, thanks to the incredible success of Enbrel so far, California-based biotech firm Amgen bought Immunex for about $16 billion earlier this year. (Immunex's total 2001 revenue was only $989 million, but Enbrel income is predicted to dwarf those numbers soon.)

In court papers, Zymo claims not so much that Immunex stole Enbrel specifically, but that Enbrel exploits underlying technology created by Zymo known as Ig Fusion. "We feel that Enbrel infringes on Ig-fusion, our patented technology," says Dr. Charles Hart, senior director of corporate communications for ZymoGenetics.

Immunex did not return calls for comment.

Market analysts had originally speculated that the lawsuit was a ZymoGenetics ploy to raise some quick cash. Zymo's recent public stock offering had reportedly fallen short of expectations, and--seeing that Immunex was hot to close the sale with Amgen--Zymo was accused of taking advantage of the moment. Immunex, the theory went, would surely settle with Zymo rather than force Amgen to worry about the possibility of losing any future Enbrel profits if the case went forward--and went badly.

However, with the Amgen merger now a done deal--and with the suit set to move ahead--it seems that ZymoGenetics vs. Immunex is a lawsuit in earnest. In fact, the case is a sign of the times in the new world of biotech research, where not just products but functions of DNA molecules themselves are being patented. Immunex is the second local biotech firm currently facing a patent infringement lawsuit over an underlying technological process (rather than a specific product knockoff). Bothell-based ICOS is being sued by Pfizer Inc. for a pending impotence drug, Cialis, that uses enzyme technology similar to that of Pfizer's Viagra. In a similar standoff that went down in Europe, the European patent office ruled in July 2001 that Pfizer's efforts were too "broad" an attempt to cover the technology.

josh@thestranger.com

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