Five large biotech and pharmaceutical companies are accusing Columbia University of having illegally extended the life of key DNA patents to maintain highly lucrative licensing revenues. The patents have brought the university between $300 and $400 million in licensing royalties over the past 2 decades.

In lawsuits filed last week, the companies say that Columbia's so-called Axel patents, which cover the cotransformation process, have expired. The technology, they say, should now be in the public domain and Columbia should no longer be allowed to assess royalties for its use.

In cotransformation, foreign DNA is inserted into a host cell to produce certain proteins. As a pioneering recombinant DNA technology, it is widely used by pharmaceutical and biotech companies. The technology was a top revenue producer for Columbia, bringing in almost $100 million a year at its peak. The Axel patents expired 3 years ago, but the university last...

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