The dramatic monoclonal antibody advance reported Friday in Science magazine could bring in large sums of money for the two groups that developed it.
By reducing the time and cost of creating the antibodies, the new technology should make it less expensive for about 250 biotechnology companies to develop monoclonal antibodies, according to Martin Nash, vice president of Synbiotics, a San Diego-based biotechnology firm.
The new technology was developed by the Research Institute of Scripps Clinic in La Jolla and Stratagene, a privately held La Jolla-based biotechnology company.
Nash, president-elect of the Assn. of Biotechnology Companies, said the new technology also might reduce development costs at 400 companies that are using monoclonal antibodies to produce medical tests, or that hope to create drugs for the treatment of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and arthritis.
Analysts have estimated that sales of monoclonal antibodies will reach several billion dollars during the next few years.
But it is "too early to go out there and really set a value" on the new technology, said Joseph Sorge, founder and chairman of Stratagene, which played an integral role in developing the technology. And, "we have no idea right now whether our rights are absolute or not," said Raymond H. Kahn, Scripps' industrial liaison officer.
The patent situation is clouded because other scientists might lay claim to certain aspects of the technique.
If Scripps and Stratagene do retain total patent rights, they could make significant sums of money by selling licenses to interested companies and research institutions.
Although important, the technology developed by Scripps and Stratagene is unlikely to turn San Diego into the center of the biotechnology industry's universe, largely because the San Francisco Bay Area, the cradle of the commercial biotechnology industry, still leads the nation with nearly 170 biotechnology companies that have 14,000 employees.
However, word of the monoclonal antibody advance will bolster San Diego's growing reputation as a biotechnology hub with a strong emphasis on basic research and a significant number of small but growing biotechnology companies, Nash said.
San Diego now boasts the second-largest concentration of biotechnology firms on the West Coast, with 73 companies that employ 2,237 people, according to a survey by the Ernst & Young accounting firm. The Los Angeles/Orange counties area has 56 companies and the Seattle area 49.
San Diego's wealth of biotechnology companies grew from just five firms in 1978. That rapid growth was driven by associations with Scripps, UC San Diego, the Salk Institute and a growing number of smaller research institutions that employ about 3,000 biotechnology researchers and staff personnel. For example, 27 San Diego companies have direct or indirect ties with UCSD, according to a recent study by San Diego State University professor Daryl G. Mitton. Similarly, 24 companies have ties to Scripps.
With military spending on the wane and high-technology industries losing market share to Japanese competitors, "biotech is the future of this city," said Howard E. (Ted) Greene, a venture capital executive who in 1978 co-founded Hybritech, a large San Diego-based firm that is now a subsidiary of Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly & Co.
The new technology decribed in Science magazine is "a further feather in Scripps' hat," according to Greene, who believes the technology solidified Scripps' position as "an emerging leader in the design of molecules that are medically useful."
Scripps "is not just focusing on the highly esoteric . . . (aspects of) basic research," Greene said. Rather, Scripps seems to be evolving into an institution that functions "more like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has been pumping out things into the commercial arena for decades," Greene said.