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A researcher who claims he co-invented the automatic DNA sequencer used to map the human genome doesn’t have the evidence to prove his case, a Los Angeles federal judge has ruled. Henry Huang’s laboratory notebooks did not provide clear and convincing evidence that he invented the technology, concluded U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer. Huang contends that the work he did as a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology from 1977 to 1982 was used to develop the automatic DNA sequencer. Huang worked in the laboratory of renowned scientist Leroy Hood, who was one of eight scientists named as inventors in four patents covering the technology. Huang, now an associate professor of molecular microbiology at Washington University in St. Louis, filed suit last year against Caltech, Applera Corp., Applied Biosystems and the named inventors. “The court found Dr. Huang to be a credible witness and is not convinced that he had no role at all in the development of the technology at issue here,” Pfaelzer wrote in her Feb. 17 order. Still, “primarily because his story was largely uncorroborated, but also because the evidence presented did not justify his inventorship claims, Dr. Huang has failed to meet his burden.” Huang’s claim to be an inventor of the automatic DNA sequencer — which Pfaelzer characterized as arguably one of the most important advances in biology in the 20th century — rested primarily on his lab notes. The judge said that while Huang kept 26 bound notebooks for his projects at Caltech, most of the documents he relied on came from loose-leaf sheets that were not consistently dated and could not be corroborated by anyone. “Dr. Huang brings this case almost 20 years after his laboratory notebooks were created,” Pfaelzer wrote. “In the intervening time, the invention that he now claims to have conceived has received international acclaim and tremendous financial success. Even honest and well-meaning people might be tempted to amplify their role in creating such an important invention.” The judge ruled that Huang’s notebooks were insufficient to corroborate his testimony. She also dismissed other evidence Huang presented to back up his claims. This included a letter Huang wrote to Bayer AG requesting textile dyes that reacted with DNA. “Dr. Huang never tested the dyes he ordered, and the record reflects that an entirely different process was used to attach tags to DNA in the patented invention,” said Pfaelzer. A lawyer for Applied Biosystems, the unit of Applera Corp. that commercialized the Caltech technology, applauded the ruling. “This clears the allegations of wrongdoing against the inventors that made valuable contributions to science,” said Edward Reines, a partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges’ office in Redwood Shores, California. “They can now take their rightful place in history without question.” But Huang’s attorney said his client is likely to appeal Pfaelzer’s order. “The admission made by some co-defendant inventors clearly showed that Henry had made a substantial contribution to the invention,” said Timothy Barber, a partner at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, which is based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Barber said Huang learned that the patents at issue were based on his ideas after being contacted by MJ Research Inc. and shown patent documents going back to 1982. According to court papers, MJ Research met with Huang in 1999, and the following year sued Caltech and Applera on behalf of the U.S. government. The company argued that the government, which declined to join the litigation, was owed money since the automatic DNA sequencer was developed with federal funds. That case was dismissed in October. In Huang v. California Institute of Technology, Huang initially claimed that he and one other researcher co-invented technology covered in three patents and that he was the sole inventor of technology in the fourth patent. He later amended his suit, seeking to be named co-inventor with Hood and the others named in the patents. The court took up the issue of Huang’s inventorship claims before discovery was taken on his claims for damages. Brenda Sandburg is a senior writer at The Recorder in San Francisco where she covers developments in patent law and other intellectual property matters.

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