|No wonder they call the place 'Mother Hutch'
Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company
Since the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center was founded as a tax-supported nonprofit a quarter-century ago, it has spawned private companies worth more than $18 billion and an estimated $100 million in personal wealth for its doctors.
At least 20 physician-researchers have left The Hutch to start private ventures based on the government-funded work they did there.
Others, particularly senior managers, stayed at The Hutch but supplemented their salaries with private consulting, stock deals and drug-development rights.
Whether they left, stayed or straddled the fence between business and academic research, the scientists say they were motivated not by the money but by the promise of better science and medicine.
That was the argument that prevailed in Congress in 1980 when the Bayh-Dole Act gave academic centers the right to patent and profit from their discoveries. Supporters thought this would spur innovation and discovery, and it has.
More and more, though, the financial benefits are ending up with individual scientists and their investor backers. And some experts worry that the motive for profit could compromise the free exchange of ideas for scientific progress.
They question the wisdom of joint ventures between publicly funded academic research and corporations. And they cite the importance of maintaining public trust in the integrity of medical research unmotivated by profit concerns, particularly when the research is performed on human volunteers.
Dr. Rainer Storb, an orignal member of The Hutch and current head of transplantation biology, said he is thankful for public funding of biotech research, and proud to be working for scientific progress rather than profit. Storb said he has never believed government-financed scientists should take money from private companies.
The late Dr. Bill Hutchinson - founder of The Hutch and brother of the man for whom the center is named - reportedly felt much the same way.
Clearly, though, many doctors at The Hutch feel differently. Over the years, the center's conflict-of-interest policy has been weakened and walls between taxpayer-funded science and for-profit science have crumbled.
"Actually a lot of people in the community call us `Mother Hutch,' " said Rose Beer, who moved from a Hutch lab to private industry - 18 years at Genetic Systems, Icos and Targeted Genetics - before returning to The Hutch in 1998.
Beer now works at the center's Office of Technology Transfer, its bridge with companies.
"When I came back, everyone went, `You're going back to the Mother.' The womb."