RTIs & Apples

The patent for Abacavir (ABC) (trade name Ziagen), a reverse transcriptase inhibitor (RTI) effective against some resistant strains of HIV, expires this December. Incidentally, a guest lecturer in microbiology came to us to speak about HIV. Here’s where it gets interesting:

Using public funds, researchers at the University of Minnesota analyzed primary literature and hypothesized a novel RTI. After testing revealed its efficacy, Abacavir was patented. GlaxoSmithKline then sold the drug as Ziagen… without proper rights to do so. Mark Yudof, president of the University in the late 90s (and a lawyer), decided to sue for royalties. Settlement: 400 million dollars. This is the largest intellectual property case in the U of M’s history.

The other prominent case centers around the Honeycrisp apple. After having one, many people call the Honeycrisp the best apple they’ve ever had. As noted by a grower: “It has a first-of-its-kind crispness that no previous apple has ever possessed, its juiciness is unsurpassed, and it can be held for an unusually long period of time, compared to other apple varieties, in prime condition.”

Now, I dont’ know the details of the suit over the apple — and I’m not that interested. The story of the apple, however, is rather remarkable. The University of Minnesota has been breeding apples for over 150 years and they “release” new breeds to apple growers fairly regularly: e.g. Haralson in 1922, Beacon in 1936. In 1960, crosses were done with existing apple breeds (one known: Keepsake, the other unknown) to produce, ostensibly, the first Honeycrisp seedling in 1961. Over the next decade plus, absolutely nothing remarkable was noted about the variety.

At the U of M orchard, in the late 1970s, The remaining Honeycrisp trees were marked for destruction. The entire Honeycrisp variety owes its existence to the fruit breeder David Bedford:

Apparently no one on the face of the earth tasted a Honeycrisp apple from the time it was numbered in 1974 until Bedford picked some in 1983. Nine years! Bedford himself never tasted fruit from the original tree. It was out of existence for a number of years before the four first-generation trees came into bearing, and they existed based only on a very weak, non-descript 1974 report, the last report ever made on the original tree’s fruit. When Bedford marked the four trees for removal and then, upon reconsideration, removed the discard tags that would have forever obliterated Honeycrisp, he had never tasted the apple.

And here we are: an incredible apple with an amazing taste — which is now the Minnesota state fruit, was very nearly tossed out as a part of regular orchard breeding program maintenance.

It seems to me that science is all about fortune favoring the prepared: nobody explicitly mapped out all the desired characteristics of an apple or an RTI drug — they make some educated guesses, and then watch for results.

1 comment left


John +1

Just quick note on Honeycrisp apples.

This year these apples experienced sun scald. Sun scald occurs when apples are exposed to extremely warm temperatures (like the MN Summer we had this year, which was most prominent during the apple harvest). Other varieties were also affected but this particular variety developed an unusual pattern of sun scald. Honeycrisp apples that were subject to sun scald will appear perfectly fine on the surface, but in the “meat” of the apple will have brown spots. These spots are not harmful but obviously a deterrent to the frequent apple-eater. Just “food for thought…”

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