AT ISSUE: Promega Corp.'s sale of Taq polymerase for PCR has riled Hoffmann-La Roche.
It's David vs. Goliath in a battle of biblical proportions over the patents for a crucial enzyme in molecular biology. The Goliath in this case is the century-old health-care giant Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd. The Basel, Switzerland-based company employs 50,500 people and had 1995 sales of 14.7 billion Swiss francs ($11.8 billion). David is the Promega Corp. of Madison, Wis., a biological reagent company with 420 employees and 1995 sales of about $60 million.

At stake is not only the validity of a lucrative patent, but also the question of whether academic scientists must worry about whether someone might own patent rights to enzymes or processes they wish to use in their research. Patent experts interpret recent court decisions as being broadly favorable to Promega, but the case is far from settled. Caught in the middle...

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