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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

West Scoops Up Russian Inventions

Ten years ago, Russians scientists began researching a revolutionary biological microchip.

Today, they are watching it head West like so many other of the country's inventions -- touted as the key to a potentially multibillion-dollar industry.

On Monday, U.S. companies Motorola Inc. and Packard BioScience Co. signed a deal with the U. S. government's Argonne National Laboratory to develop its so-called biochip, which the groups say will revolutionize DNA study by allowing scientists to read human genes 1,000 times faster than current methods allow.

"We could very well be witnessing the birth of a new multibillion-dollar industry that will allow our children and their children to live in a substantially healthier world," news agencies quoted U.S. Secretary of Energy Federico Pe?a as saying Monday in Washington.

Like computer chips, which run through millions of mathematical equations per second, the biochips do thousands of biological computations in a few seconds, examining DNA and other biological structures that can help identify patients at risk from diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer's.

The biochip concept was developed ten years ago by scientist Andrei Mirzabekov at the Moscow-based Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. A few years ago, he received a laboratory at Argonne to further his biochip research, said Alexander Zasedatelov, assistant to the head of the biochip department at Engelhardt.

Since 1994, the project has received about $10 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Russian Human Genome Program.

Motorola and Packard will together put in $19 million over the next five years to develop testing instrumentation and mass-production facilities.

In return, the two companies hold exclusive licencing rights outside of Russia. Within Russia, however, any domestic company can produce biochips without paying patent fees, as rights on the technology belong to the country as well.

Motorola hopes to bring the price per chip down from $100 to just 40 cents, news agencies reported. While Motorola's stock jumped 1.35 percent Monday on news of its involvement in the potentially revolutionary new industry, the Russian side can expect just enough funds to keep its Engelhardt Institute running for another five years -- or about $400,000 a year, Zasedatelov said.

That grant money covers about 10 percent of the institute's total budget costs. The Russian government is responsible for financing another 30 to 40 percent, but Zasedatelov said the institute is lucky if they get half of that.

In addition to the funding, Mirzabekov said the institute has been fully outfitted with modern equipment, and many of the 40 scientists working on the project conduct research both in the United States and Russia.

Scientific bodies such as the Engelhardt Institute are forced to survive hand-to-mouth, living on grants and contracts with foreign companies. But the tentative existence has allowed many of Russia's finest to be lured overseas.

The biochip's inventor, Mirzabekov, explained the decision to take his research abroad.

"The United States is the only country which offers the opportunity to develop science and it's application in a very fast way," he said. "I am first a scientist, and as a scientist I have to think about what can get done in science."

But some scientific heads take a philosophical approach to the problem.

"Of course it's a big loss," said Arkady Maltsyev, assistant to the director of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "But no Russian company is going to invest in this science when they can make more on the [T-bill] market with close to 100 percent yields."

If anything, the biochip deal is better than most, he said. "At least in this case, we've managed to save the institute."

Mirzabekov, who remains director of the Engelhardt Institute, said he will not abandon his country completely, and continues to work in Russia. "I have a responsibility as the director of an institute," he said. "I wouldn't want to be like a captain who leaves his sinking ship."