A successful scientific collaboration between Russia and the United States for developing microchips to process genetic information has collapsed in acrimony.

The collaboration, which involved the Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology (EIMB) in Moscow, the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and two US-based commercial partners, had provided substantial funding for the Moscow laboratory in exchange for access to its expertise in DNA chip technology.

Moving on: director Andrei Mirzabekov (inset) is looking for new partners for Moscow's Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology. Credit: EUGENY V. DREVAL

But in recent months, financial support for the Russian laboratory has dried up as EIMB and Argonne argue over the contractual arrangements between the parties. As a result of the dispute, Andrei Mirzabekov has resigned as director of Argonne's Biochip Technology Center. In turn, Argonne has suspended the transfer to the Russian laboratory of some of the royalties it receives from the collaboration's industrial partners.

The collaboration, which began in 1995, has generated almost 40 scientific publications and 30 patents and patent applications. It also triggered a partnership with Packard BioScience, a Connecticut-based instrument maker, and the electronics company Motorola. The companies have used research from the collaboration to develop commercial microchips based on tiny gels applied on a glass surface which can perform thousands of biological reactions within seconds, and associated instruments to process and analyse results from the chip. Researchers use the technology to detect genetic mutations and for drug design.

Motorola and Packard have contributed almost US$20 million to the project over five years, making it one of the most successful biotechnology agreements between the US Department of Energy, which runs Argonne, and industry. About 15% of this money went to the EIMB, which also, Mirzabekov says, received funding through a licensing agreement with Argonne.

Argonne officials agree that the arrangement has been a roaring success. "This has been a true model relationship," says one. But according to Bill Ragland, a research manager at Argonne, it is now time to reduce the size of the Moscow research operation supported by the collaboration.

Mirzabekov claims that some US officials have turned sour on the arrangement because of security concerns about the possible use of biochip technology in detecting biological warfare agents. Argonne officials deny that this has any connection with their decision.

According to Argonne, royalty payments of about $500,000 for the year 2000 have been stopped because of contractual disagreements over intellectual property rights on microchip technology. The technology was initially described by a team at the Moscow lab in the 1980s. Argonne rejects Mirzabekov's claim that rights for the technology, which was subsequently developed by the joint venture, should now revert back to the EIMB.

Argonne officials say they are keen to transfer the outstanding money, but first want Mirzabekov to sign a contract assuring them that he will continue to abide by earlier financial agreements. Mirzabekov is unhappy with the contract, saying he already has one, and that Argonne is effectively seeking to renegotiate it. "It makes us very worried about the future, thinking that Argonne could depart from other contracts as well," he says.

Mirzabekov says he has hired lawyers in the United States, but cannot afford to fight a lengthy legal battle with the US lab. He hopes instead that the Russian science ministry will settle the case directly with the US Department of Energy.

Mirzabekov is now searching for new partners in the United States or Western Europe. He hopes to use biochips to detect drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis — a growing health problem in Russia.