The genetically engineered one-day wonder that won out

Ask our experts

Christian L. Christiansen

Head of Life Science & Chemistry Group, Partner

European Patent Attorney, CDPA

In 1977, when four researchers from the then Odense University invented a revolutionary genetic engineering technology, they had never dreamed of having it patented. Nevertheless, after a single meeting with one of the founders of Plougmann Vingtoft, the passionate patent consultant Ole Plougmann, they found themselves persuaded. This meeting became groundbreaking, as it resulted in the first biotechnology patent in Europe.

Today, biotech patents are a billion-dollar business worldwide, and Danish biotechnology companies can keep up with the very best. Denmark, Sweden and Ireland are the countries in Europe with the highest number of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies per citizen, and nearly 17 billion are invested in biotech research and patenting every year.

However, 40 years ago the biotech landscape looked completely different. Patents were not something that you worked with strategically, neither at the universities, where patenting was considered politically incorrect, nor when it came to the industry’s bigger players.

A good idea sees the light of day
When a group of scientists from Odense University invented a whole new method for genetic engineering in 1977, patenting was not something they had considered. When this new method, which today is known as Runaway, saw the light of day, genetic engineering was still a fairly new research area – not only in Denmark, but also in the rest of the world. It had only been four years, since the two American scientists, Herbert Wayne Boyer and Stanley Cohen, in 1973, had successfully transferred genes from an organism to bacteria, and gotten the transferred genes to co-exist and function in the bacteria to produce a predetermined protein. That was in fact the very first successful gene splicing.

The first biotech patent in Europe
As good luck would have it, patent consultant, civil engineer and founder of Plougmann Vingtoft, Ole Plougmann, got wind of the research project. Even though Ole had never heard of gene technology before, he quickly understood the principles and saw the prospects of the researchers’ new technology. So, in the course of a single, but epoch-making, meeting, he convinced them to patent the invention.

The genetic engineering patent was pioneering as the first of its kind in Europe. However, when the researchers tried to sell the technology to the Danish biotech industry, they were met by a wall of rejections. The industry regarded genetic engineering as no more than a passing fancy – nothing worth investing money in.

In the end, they did manage to find a buyer. This was the biotech company Alfred Benzon, which was known for, amongst other things, the gum brand of the 1970’s – SorBits. At this time, however, the company also did research in cancer treatment using the protein type interferon.

A patent of importance
The Runaway patent has made a great difference, not only for the pharmaceutical industry, but also in terms of putting Denmark on the map within the biotech industry.

The close collaboration between Ole Plougmann and the researchers became in many ways the foundation for how Plougmann Vingtoft has worked since then: Promoting patenting of innovative technologies in Denmark, and making them marketable products that also benefits society. Ole Plougmann’s creative approach and his ability to quickly see the potential of new and complex technology is a role model for our patent consultants to this very day.

What is genetic engineering?

In genetic engineering, or gene splicing, you insert certain genes into a cell’s or microorganism’s plasmid in order to make it produce specific proteins.

Genetic engineering is, among other things, used in the food industry to enhance desired properties in the foods. By altering, for example, the production of the ripening agent ethylene in tomatoes, you can pick the tomatoes, when they are completely ripe, and get them to the consumer, before they go bad.

Genetic engineering can also be used for producing certain proteins used in the pharmaceutical industry – proteins that are difficult to extract from natural sources. 



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