The Jackson Laboratory, a non-profit genetics research centre in Bar Harbor, Maine, is embroiled in its first ever patent dispute — with another non-profit research institute.

"It is almost unheard of for one academic institute to sue another over patent infringement," says the Jackson Lab's corporate lawyer, David Einhorn, who described the dispute on 21 May at a meeting in Rome on sharing data and resources for functional genomics. "The affair is completely uncivil.

The suit was filed by the Central Institute for Experimental Animals (CIEA) in Kawasaki, Japan, which last week reported the world's first transgenic primate able to pass a foreign gene to its offspring (E. Sasaki et al. Nature 459, 523–527; 2009). In 2006 the CIEA was granted a US patent on a strain of immunodeficient mice called NOG, which it began to make commercially available in the United States earlier this year. The institute has also trademarked the strain.

The CIEA's lawsuit claims that the Jackson Lab is infringing the patent, a claim the laboratory denies. Among the more than 4,000 mouse mutant strains that the Jackson Lab maintains and distributes to the worldwide academic community is a mouse similar to NOG, called NSG. The Jackson Lab developed the NSG strain and, since 2006, has made it available to more than 640 research groups worldwide. It does not patent.

The CIEA says it is after recognition, not profits. "We would like scientists around the world to recognize the innovation involved in the creation of the NOG mouse," says Hideo Maeno, general manager in the institute's strategic management department.

The institute distributes NOG mice under quite restrictive terms: purchasers cannot breed or cross-breed from them, and there are extensive 'reach-through' rights that control successive work done with the mice.

Immunodeficient mice are widely used in the study of diseases such as cancer or diabetes because they can be 'humanized' by having human tissue or human transgenes transplanted into them. As their immune system is suppressed, the mice tend not to reject the foreign tissue.

In the 1980s, an immunodeficient mouse strain called CB17-SCID was generated by a spontaneous mutation. In the 1990s, this SCID mutation was crossed first by scientists at the Jackson Lab, and later at the CIEA, with their respective strains of another, non-obese diabetic (NOD) mouse.

The Jackson Lab and the CIEA then each independently crossed their NOD-SCID strains with mice whose gene for a key immune signalling molecule, IL2Rγ, was either partially or completely knocked out. The NOD-SCID IL2Rγ-deficient mice — abbreviated as NOG by the CIEA and as NSG by the Jackson Lab — are particularly good at accepting grafted tissue.

Handle with care: more than 4,000 strains of mice are produced at the Jackson Laboratory. Credit: R. F. BUKATY/AP

The Jackson Lab denies that it has infringed any patent or trademark rights. Einhorn notes that the long-established NOD and SCID strains used to create the mice were not identical anyway, because of natural genetic drift accumulated over many generations in the separate locations.

Einhorn is particularly upset that the CIEA did not contact the lab about its concern before filing the case in December in a US district court in northern California. "The first I heard was three days later when I got a call from a Californian lawyer who had spotted the case and was offering us his services," he says.

Maeno did not respond directly to questions about why his institute didn't contact the Jackson Lab before filing suit. But, he says, "we have enjoyed a close relationship with the Jackson Lab in the past and we hope to continue that relationship in the future."

The National Institutes of Health, which funds the Jackson Lab repository, has asked the lab to bring a counterclaim on its behalf, saying that the CIEA infringed a patent it filed on the knockout mouse used to breed both the NOG and NSG strains. The NIH patents biological inventions to prevent others from patenting and then restricting use.

Jackson Lab scientist Leonard Shultz, who has worked for 35 years on developing humanized mice including the NSG strain, echoes the concerns of many in the community when he says he does not understand the CIEA's motivation. The CIEA says it cannot comment concretely on such matters, because of the ongoing litigation.

On face value, the CIEA does not seem like an aggressively modern, lawyer-wielding institute. It is more old-world, with its rundown buildings tucked into a modest residential area of the working-class city of Kawasaki.

It is still directed by 87-year-old Tatsuji Nomura, the infectious-disease researcher who founded it in 1952 because he was concerned about the variable quality of research animals. It is operated by a foundation funded by some 30 Japanese pharmaceutical and biomedical companies.

"Science is essentially a global enterprise and national profit is not part of our mindset," insists Maeno. "We are absolutely not trying to slow the pace of science."

Additional reporting by David Cyranoski