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August 24, 2004
Living by the IP Sword
Back when I was in graduate school, we didn't have these here fancy automated literature searches here. So I had to find out in the old-fashioned way that the molecule I was working on had just been synthesized (first) by someone else: by picking up the library's latest issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (in its old grey-covered era) and coming across it in the table of contents.
Not a fun moment. I gave a muffled shout and started paging frantically to the article. And yep, there was another research group's total synthesis all right. The only consolation was that they weren't doing it the way that I was, and my route was better. Allegedly. After this, my attitude was "The world does not need another synthesis of rosaramicin. But I do."
Now that I'm in industry, I don't fear the open literature so much. I fear the patent literature. Whenever a drug company starts serious work on a chemical series, it puts out a sieve of automated searches for the core structure and all its close relatives. If you're ripping off someone else's known structure, which we all do from time to time, then you really spend a lot of time looking over your shoulder. These searches usually run once a week, and you want to see a comforting "0 results" come up, which tells you that you're still in the clear. Sometimes you're in the middle of the road, though, with the high-beam headlights bearing down on you. Most people with pharma experience have had a chemical series (or a whole project) yanked out from under them because it turns out that someone else was already working on it.
I can think of at least one case where it turns out that my group and a group at another company had stumbled across the exact same chemical series, and we were both working away at it at exactly the same time. Neither of us knew it at the time, of course, but when the patent applications published, everything became clear. We'd filed our applications with a few weeks of each other. And neither project was taking off from a known compound in the field; we'd apparently each discovered our leads through random screening. Makes you wonder about how much overlap there is between company screening collections. . .
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