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Knowledge for sale? What happens when commercial labs close?

by Eva Amsen

I was just reading the “Cambridge News & Crier” – a free door to door paper about all the weekly goings-on in Cambridge. Kittens need loving homes, Area Man grows giant pumpkin – that kind of thing. There was an article in this week’s issue about 40 people being laid off with the closing of a local Astra Zeneca branch. (Thousands are being laid off worldwide.) The article had a human interest angle about how the company was trying to help the laid-off staff members, and a brief paragraph about the type of research they were doing there: developing cancer drugs based on DNA-damage sensing.

Reading those two paragraphs so close together suddenly made me wonder: what happens to the body of knowledge when a commercial lab closes? In academia, accumulated knowledge can be quickly published if a lab is closing, as peer-reviewed paper or in a student’s thesis, or a former lab member takes the project with them to their new lab, but in industry everything is confidential. What happens with the progress they made? Are their patents and plasmids and notebooks being sold to another company? Or has it all been a waste of time, and will another lab need to start at square one to develop similar drugs from scratch?

To put it more dramatically: are more lives at stake than those of the employees and their families when a medical research facility closes its doors?

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Cath Ennis March 15, 2010 - 11:50 PM

Very interesting question.
I find it hard to imagine that the knowledge would just be allowed to die with the lab; if it’s promising, then it’s potentially very valuable. In the case of a big company like AZ, they probably transfer all the most promising projects to other departments and facilities (this happens when a big company buys out a smaller one, too). When the company folds completely? Well, maybe they folded because their projects showed no promise…

Kausik Datta March 16, 2010 - 12:17 AM

I agree, very interesting question. From my experience, many, many moons before a company folds, the upper echelon makes the decision to put the brakes on particular projects in preparation for the folding or merger. In case of a merger, whether the new overlords continue a particular project often depends on whether its merits have been sold properly by the former executives and scientists. Industry projects that are going nowhere are often published in a hurry (to get something out of it) as the company folds.

Brian Derby March 16, 2010 - 10:10 AM

I was at a networking meeting last week for local (Northern England) biotech companies and I bumped into a student I taught 15 years ago who had been working for a biotech firm that had just folded. However it had risen again like a phoenix from the ashes, with the core IP now bought out and funded by new backers. The new company is about one quarter the old one before collapse but the exploitable science is still being developed.
Companies go under for a range of reasons but mostly to do with cash flow or the business model rather than the science.

Eva Amsen March 16, 2010 - 10:37 AM

So was the quarter-size new company still working on the most promising research from the first company? The researchers were rehired and they took it with them?

Brian Derby March 16, 2010 - 11:22 AM

@Eva – I think so. The IP presumably rested in the company and must have been sold on by the administrators. I am not sure if the company completely collapsed – it most likely went into administration and the core sold on with the proceeds going to the creditors (who are often the government, as it is unpaid taxes which are often the final straw for a cash strapped company).

Richard P. Grant March 16, 2010 - 11:22 AM

Wow, good question. I still have some knowledge locked up in my brane from a project or three that never saw the light of day from the company I worked at in Cambridge (see my series ‘On the Year of Living Dangerously’. I should catch up with the ex-CSO and see what we can do…

Henry Gee March 16, 2010 - 11:58 AM

Area Man grows giant pumpkin
I know Cambridge is rather like Flatland, but this is just pathetic. Even in Norfolk we have Volume Man, and I’m going for Tesseract Man.

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