Credit for discovery
and a patenting gaffe

Published April 01 2019

On page 32 of the December 2018 issue of ASBMB Today, there is a half-page box that includes a picture of Nobel laureate César Milstein who, as the article explains, invented an efficient method to develop monoclonal antibodies. In the same issue, on page 27, you have a picture of Nobel laureates Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein, who invented critical pathways of cholesterol metabolism. Unfortunately, in the aforementioned box, you did not credit Georges J. F. Köhler, who was the first author of the 1975 paper in the journal Nature on monoclonal antibodies and co-winner of the 1984 Nobel Prize with Milstein (and Niels Jerne). Köhler’s name is not mentioned even once. Since both Köhler and Milstein are now dead, I do not believe that this mishap will bring up any immediate complaints. But I believe it would be instructive to your audience, especially trainees, to publish a picture portraying both Köhler and Milstein and give them equal credit in the caption.

On the question as to who contributed more to the discovery, Köhler or Milstein or others, I would say, Who knows? But if I have to guess, I would pick Köhler, the postdoc who likely conducted all the experiments. César Milstein and Georges Köhler This photo of César Milstein and Georges Köhler was taken in 1982, two years before they, along with Niels Jerne, won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.CELIA MILSTEIN/MRC LABORATORY OF MOLECULAR BIOLOGY

On the issue of not patenting the invention, you report that Milstein blamed the bureaucracy of his institution. I read elsewhere (but do not recall the specific reference) that Milstein believed that humanity would have been better served without patenting of their invention. I believe that the likely truth is different. Neither Milstein nor anybody else could have guessed in 1975 the impact of monoclonal antibodies in diagnostics and therapeutics. Most academics, even today, are not familiar with patents and the regulatory/disclosure issues associated with them. When they have a discovery, they usually try to publish it as soon as possible, for the fear of being scooped, and they lose sleep until their paper is accepted in Nature or a similar journal. If my suspicion is true, this incident was likely a gaffe due to ignorance of patenting practices as well as impatience. Based on its estimated value (around $100 billion), this discovery likely qualifies as the biggest financial gaffe in the history of scientific discovery.

Regarding claims of inventorship, the Nobel prizes and Nobel laureates: I published a 2013 paper in the journal Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine on Nobelitis, a common disease among Nobelists, and I recently argued, with Clare Fiala, in the same journal that the Nobel Prize should be abandoned. There are many reasons, one being that credit is impossible to assign fairly among those who contributed to the inventions. Controversies as to who should get the prize are almost as many as the awarded prizes themselves.

Eleftherios Diamandis
University of Toronto