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A San Francisco Bay Area biotech firm was cleared of any wrongdoing last week when a federal jury in Philadelphia rejected the claims of an ophthalmologist who alleged he was cheated out of his promised share of the profits from a new treatment for macular degeneration — the leading cause of blindness in people over the age of 60. In the suit, plaintiff Kourosh A. Dastgheib claimed that he had provided “vitally important” research to Genentech Inc. that led to its development of the drug Lucentis, but that the company reneged on its promise to give him 1 percent of its gross revenues and professional recognition for his role in discovering the drug. After a 12-day trial before U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno, the jury rejected all three of Dastgheib’s claims — fraud, unjust enrichment and unfair trade practices. If Dastgheib had prevailed on any of his claims, the verdict could have been massive because his lawyers were asking for an award of more than $1 billion. But Genentech’s lawyers — Kenneth A. Gallo and Maria T. Vullo of Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison — told the jury that Dastgheib played no role in the discovery of the drug and that his claim that he was orally promised a percentage of the revenues was not believable. In his closing argument, Gallo told the jury that Dastgheib’s “actions for seven years speak louder than his words.” In Dastgheib’s letters to Genentech, Gallo said, no mention was ever made of his claim that he was promised any share of the proceeds. Instead, he said, the evidence showed only that Dastgheib was paid $2,000 for providing slides from his research. “Ladies and gentlemen, his actions for seven years are completely inconsistent with the idea that there was a promise made in 1995 that he relied on, totally inconsistent, and that’s because there was no promise,” Gallo said in his closing argument. But Dastgheib’s lawyer, Raymond P. Niro of Niro Scavone Haller & Niro in Chicago, urged the jury to focus on the science and argued that the evidence proved that Dastgheib’s research was critical to the development of the drug. Niro said the evidence showed that Dastgheib was a researcher at Duke University who came to Genentech’s attention when he presented a paper on his research that showed he had discovered the cause of macular degeneration. According to court papers, the “wet” form of macular degeneration is an incurable eye disease that is the leading cause of blindness in people over the age of 60, afflicting 250,000 Americans every year and 1 million people worldwide. The disease causes deterioration of the central portion of the retina due to abnormal growth of blood vessels and vision loss that is rapid and severe. Dastgheib claimed in the suit that his research proved for the first time that onset of the disease is linked to vascular endothelial growth factor, or VEGF, which stimulates formation of new blood vessels in the eye. The suit said that Dastgheib’s published research “unequivocally established him as the first scientist to make this discovery.” Dastgheib claimed that in July 1995 he was contacted by Genentech and asked to provide slides from his research. Although he at first refused, Dastgheib claimed that after repeated requests, he agreed to provide the slides when Genentech promised him professional recognition and a 1 percent share of the gross profits in the event that it developed a marketable drug. Ultimately, the suit said, Genentech succeeded in developing ranibizumab, an antibody for VEGF that it now markets under the brand name Lucentis. The drug is injected intravitreally (into the vitreous humour of the eye) once a month. Niro told the jury that Lucentis is a “blockbuster drug” that raked in $163 million in its first three months on the market and is projected to bring $10 billion in revenues to Genentech. “They’re pricing it at $10,000 to $14,000 a year. It’s worth it if you’re going to go blind. I’d pay it. So would most people,” Niro said. Niro said the present value of the drug is $3.48 billion, and that the jury should award one-third of that amount, or $1.16 billion, to Dastgheib for the contribution he made. “Whether he was lucky, whether it was an accident, whether he was smart, the fact is he had a theory and he proved the theory, and he wrote about it, and they went to him to get what they needed. And everyone knew it inside Genentech,” Niro said in his closing argument. But Gallo told the jury that Dastgheib failed to prove that his research was the first to establish the link between VEGF and macular degeneration and that the evidence showed that other doctors had made that breakthrough long before Dastgheib’s published research. “There’s nobody in the scientific community that agrees with him,” Gallo said in his closing speech. “This case is about scientific integrity and scientific credit,” Gallo said. “The scientific record has been published on this data for nearly 20 years, and the plaintiff did not challenge it in the scientific community once.” Gallo said Genentech “decided to stand and fight for its scientists,” and urged the jury to award Dastgheib nothing because “we can’t develop good drugs … if after the fact somebody comes in and makes a false claim of credit.”

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