MAb patent cliff threatens to blow a hole in U.K. research budget

The United Kingdom's Medical Research Council (MRC) is bracing itself for a big hit to its budget. For years, MRC has benefited from income relating to its discovery of monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) in the 1970s, but the upcoming wave of patent expirations is set to disrupt this cash cow.

Officials at MRC expect income from intellectual property to plummet imminently, The Financial Times reports. In the previous financial year, cash from mAbs helped MRC rake in £40 million ($62 million) in intellectual property payments, a sum that moved the amount the organization has made from its role in the class of products toward £600 million. But by the next financial year, the funding font is tipped to dry up, leaving MRC with just £5 million from its intellectual property. The predicted cratering of income comes at a time when MRC is scrambling to protect its budget.

Having been swept into power in May, the Conservative government has started looking for ways to save £20 billion a year. With MRC set to lose the source of 5% of its income when payouts from mAbs slow to a trickle, to avoid a financial shortfall the organization needs the government to up its funding at a time when it is slashing budgets elsewhere. Observers fear the situation will limit MRC's activities. "Money is already very tight so many first-rate proposals are not being funded," Sir Greg Winter, one of the MRC scientists behind mAbs, told the FT.

Winter played a central role in the humanization of mouse antibodies in the 1980s, work that built upon the initial discovery of mAbs by researchers at MRC in the previous decade. The discoveries led to MRC scientists picking up a Nobel Prize and laid the groundwork for blockbusters such as AbbVie's ($ABBV) Humira, Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) Remicade and other drugs that have dominated lists of the best selling drugs in recent years. For MRC, the gravy train is set to grind to a halt though, with the patents on discoveries made by Winter expiring between now and 2018.

The countdown to the patent expirations has reopened the debate about the failure of the U.K. to maximize the financial benefits of its scientific discoveries. While MRC has received a tidy flow of cash from its intellectual property rights, far more money has landed in the bank accounts of foreign companies. Winter lays the blame for this at the doors of the big beasts of British pharma. "It was not so much a failure of U.K. science to commercialise monoclonal antibodies as a failure of the U.K. pharmaceuticals industry. AstraZeneca and GSK were not interested in biological drugs at the time."

- read the FT article