|January 22, 1999||Volume 6, Number 9|
U of S research leads to commercial applications, prestigious career
Dr. Stephen Attree had a choice. He could take the traditional road and publish his research on the use of somatic embryos to produce virtually unlimited numbers of cloned trees, or he could patent the technology.
He chose to patent the technology and says that decision led to some valuable commercial applications, as well as his own high-profile position at a leading Canadian forest biotechnology company.
"The traditional line is publish or perish. But from my own point of view if I had published I really would have perished," says Attree, a former U of S researcher.
Attree, who received his PhD at the University of Manchester, began his cloning research in 1987 as a post-doctoral research fellow in the U of S Biology Department.
He worked under Dr. Larry Fowke, who had already done several years of research into the use of somatic embryogenesis to clone Canadian spruce trees.
Attree's research resulted in technology that made it possible to clone large numbers of trees with characteristics like fast growth or better insect resistance.
The technology allowed for the control of embryo germination and year-round embryo production and storage, which is important in a climate with a limited sowing season.
The technology was patented by University of Saskatchewan Technologies, and in 1994 a company expressed its interest in obtaining the worldwide license. The company, Pacific Biotechnologies of Victoria, BC, subsequently hired Attree as their director of biotechnology with a staff of 25 scientists, junior researchers, and support staff.
"We still have a good deal of research work to do in refining the process," says Attree, who expects the number of staff to expand "several fold" in years to come.
The somatic embryogenesis technology is an important tool for increasing the number of trees that can be produced at a commercial nursery. Pacific Biotechnologies is a partner company to Pacific Regeneration Technologies, which provides nursery products and services for reforestation and operates 11 commercial nurseries in the western provinces and Ontario.
While there are always tradeoffs, Attree believes that choosing to patent before publishing was a wise decision.
"You do lose some freedom in that things become subject to confidentiality. [But] there weren't really that many jobs in the academic world," he explains.
For a company like Pacific Biotechnologies, a patent is helpful in limiting the ability of competitors to commercialize the same technology.
Working as a researcher in the private sector is considerably different from working in a university setting, Attree adds.
"At a university, you're judged by the number of publications, and not by the number of hours you spend at the bench. Working in industry you really have to produce results. You have costs and budgets. You're very accountable," he says.
- Dale Worobec
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