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Former Harvard researcher says school excluded him from drug company royalties

Harvard University is the subject of a lawsuit filed by a former post-doctoral researcher who claims the school cheated him out of royalties on cancer-treatment technology licensed to Merck & Co.Michael Fein/Bloomberg

A former Harvard University postdoctoral researcher filed a federal lawsuit Thursday alleging the school cut him out of royalties from technology licensed to Merck & Co. to help the drug giant develop cancer therapies.

Harvard last year said the licensing and research collaboration with Merck could be the most important deal ever struck by the university’s technology transfer office.

The breach of contract complaint in US District Court in Boston contends that Alexander Arefolov, who worked in the Cambridge lab of Harvard scientist Matthew Shair from 2011 to 2015, contributed to developing experimental cancer-fighting compounds licensed to Merck, but was excluded from patents that so far have generated nearly $6 million in royalties to the listed inventors.


Arefolov is seeking about $1 million, plus a pro-rated share of future royalties that could be paid by Merck if a drug based on the Harvard technology is approved, according to his attorney, Brian D. O’Reilly.

Harvard officials would not discuss the complaint. “We don’t comment on pending litigation,” said university spokesman David Cameron.

The case is the latest to focus on how researchers in academic laboratories divvy up money from the scientific discoveries that fuel the biomedical business.

O’Reilly said the case is about “recognizing the contributions of students and postdoc researchers at institutions such as Harvard. They’re treated as second-class researchers when they do most of the day to day work in the labs.”

According to the suit, Shair, a Harvard chemistry professor, “excluded Dr. Arefolov as an inventor to increase [Shair’s] monetary return.” It said the university’s intellectual property policy requires that all inventors contributing to a discovery share royalties equally unless they agree otherwise. Shair and Harvard are named as defendants.

The case revolves around a group of chemical molecules developed as derivatives of a compound known as Cortistatin A to treat leukemia and other cancers.


Merck last year made a $20 million upfront payment to license the technology. The research was backed partly by the Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator, a five-year-old organization established by the university’s Office of Technology Development to fund early-stage research at Harvard and outside laboratories with the aim of commercializing it.

The complaint said Arefolov was the only chemist other than Shair working in Shair’s lab during his four years there. Arefolov devoted his entire time to the project, it said.

Shair, who was Arefolov’s postdoctoral adviser, promised to ensure that Arefolov’s “contributions were recognized in any future patent,” the lawsuit said.

“On several occasions, in response to questions about patent rights and royalties,” the suit said, “Dr. Shair made statements such as: ‘don’t worry, you will all be recognized’ [and] ‘I will take care of you in the future.’ ” The professor also said, “ ‘Alex, you are building your future with this project,’ ” according to the complaint.

Inventors typically receive about a third of the royalties from their discoveries after a 15 percent administrative fee is deducted, the suit said.

Robert Weisman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.