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New York University v. Pfizer Inc.

Supreme Court of New York, First Department

May 2, 2017

New York University, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Pfizer Inc., Defendant-Respondent.

         Plaintiff appeals from the judgment of the Supreme Court, New York County (Shirley Werner Kornreich), entered February 8, 2016, dismissing the complaint, and bringing up for review an order of the same court and Justice, entered December 21, 2015, which granted defendant's motion to dismiss.

          Lerner David Littenberg Krumholz & Mentlik LLP, Westfield, N.J. (Stephen F. Roth of the bar of the State of New Jersey, admitted pro hac vice, of counsel), and Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, New York (Michael S. Oberman and Roy H. Wepner of counsel), for appellant.

          White & Case LLP, New York (Dimitrios T. Drivas, Christopher J. Glancy, Gregory Little and Robert Counihan of counsel), for respondent.

          Angela M. Mazzarelli, J.P., Richard T. Andrias, Karla Moskowitz, Judith J. Gische, Ellen Gesmer, JJ.

          OPINION

          ANDRIAS, J.

         In this action for breach of contract, plaintiff, New York University, seeks to recover from defendant, Pfizer, Inc., as the successor in interest to Sugen, Inc., royalties on the sale of the cancer treatment drug, Xalkori®. Xalkori®, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKR), was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2011 to target the chemical receptor EML4-ALK, which was discovered by Japanese scientists after Sugen's ownership changed and its research project with NYU had ended. NYU alleges that it is nevertheless entitled to royalties under section 9 of the governing Second Amended Research and License Agreement because Xalkori®'s active ingredient, a small molecule inhibitor drug substance named "crizotinib, " was derived from its research and "know-how." In the face of the countervailing reasonable interpretations presented by the parties, which cannot be resolved at this procedural stage, we find that the language in section 9 delineating whether NYU is entitled to royalties under these circumstances is ambiguous, and that the motion court erred in granting Pfizer's motion to dismiss the complaint (see U.S. Bank Natl. Assn. v Lightstone Holdings LLC, 103 A.D.3d 458, 459 [1st Dept 2013]).

         Effective as of September 1, 1991, Sugen agreed to sponsor NYU's research into TKRs in human cells, disorders of which are causative factors for many life-threatening cancers. The goal was to understand the mechanisms underlying the actions of TKRs and how they can be regulated, with NYU, among other things, "to determine the three dimensional structure of the protein tyrosine kinase domain in complex with inhibitors using x-ray crystallography." In return, Sugen received an exclusive worldwide license to use NYU's "Research Technology" for the development, manufacture, use, and sale of drugs that would inhibit TKRs, with Sugen agreeing to pay NYU certain royalties on sales of those drugs.

         NYU's research technology included the determination of a three-dimensional crystal structure of the tyrosine kinase domain of the FGFR1, which enabled Sugen to systematically design and efficiently test candidate small molecule compounds as TKR inhibitors. NYU alleges that relying on this "pioneering technology, " Sugen decided to pursue small-molecule inhibitors of the "c-Met" receptor, leading to the development of the chemical structure of "SU11274, " which was later optimized by Sugen to generate "PHA-665752."

         In 1996, in contemplation of Sugen being acquired by a third-party, the parties executed the Second Amended Research and Licensing Agreement. Towards that end, NYU agreed to reduce the royalty rates then due in exchange for the right to royalties on certain later developed products, and the parties added section 9, captioned "SUGEN Ownership Change, " which states:

"[1] In the event that SUGEN is acquired or merged with another company, or that SUGEN acquires or forms a joint venture with another company, then SUGEN may at its option notify NYU that such other company wishes to make a determination as to which targets shall be included under the terms of the Agreement prior to the effective date of any such acquisition, merger, or joint venture, or as soon as possible thereafter. This determination shall be made in good faith by NYU and SUGEN and shall be based on an examination of SUGEN's lab books and other information available to the parties, full access (under appropriate confidentiality agreements) to which will be provided to NYU.
"[2] With respect to targets that were adopted by SUGEN into drug discovery prior to the effective date of the acquisition, merger, or joint venture, SUGEN Products developed based on such targets shall be subject to the license payments described in Section 8 hereto.
"[3] SUGEN Products that are developed based on Receptor targets which were not adopted into drug discovery at the time of the effective date of such acquisition, merger, or joint venture shall be subject to a). a royalty of 2.5% on Net Sales of SUGEN, and/or Corporation Entity, which may be offset by 50% of the royalties paid by SUGEN to third parties (other than MPG), provided that the royalties due to NYU shall not be less than 1.5%of Net Sales of SUGEN and/or Corporation Entity and b). 10% of License Revenues with respect to any SUGEN Product, provided that with respect to such SUGEN Product there exists a Patentable Invention with respect to such target and/or its utility which is derived from or based on the Research Technology, and provided further that such SUGEN Product shall include a product irrespective of whether an IND application is filed with respect thereto within 4 years from the end of the Research Period, or not."

         Sugen was acquired by Pharmacia in 1999. Pharmacia was acquired by Pfizer in 2003. Pfizer then optimized PHA-665752 to develop crizotinib (PF-02341066), and, on December 12, 2005, filed an IND application (a request for authorization from the FDA to administer an investigational drug to humans) for the drug substance as an inhibitor of the c-Met receptor. NYU alleges that information and direction from its drug discovery process led to the design of crizotinib, which was developed from studying and comparing the binding of Sugen's various candidate compounds in complex with the FGFR1 kinase crystals, with c-Met homology models derived from NYU's FGFR1 kinase crystals, and later in complex with a c-Met kinase crystal.

         In 2007, EML4-ALK, a mutated form of the "ALK" TKR, was discovered by researchers at a Japanese university unaffiliated with NYU or Pfizer as a cause of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) in a subset of patients. After it determined that crizotinib inhibited the EML4-ALK receptor, Pfizer amended its IND for crizotinib to include clinical studies of lung cancer patients who tested positive for the EML4-ALK receptor. In August 2011, the FDA approved the drug, which Pfizer named Xalkori®. After Pfizer rejected NYU's demand for royalties on sales of Xalkori®, NYU commenced this action.

         The dissent finds that because crizotinib was developed based on the receptor c-Met, which was adopted by SUGEN into drug discovery, any product based on that patentable invention, including Xalkori®, is subject to the royalty provisions of section 8, which are inapplicable because no IND was filed within four years of the end of the Research Period. However, while crizotinib has a nexus to c-Met, the language employed in section 9 does not preclude the finding that crizotinib (and the patents derived from it) also has a relevant nexus to EML4-ALK. Section 9(2) provides that "[w]ith respect to targets that were adopted by SUGEN into drug discovery prior to the effective date of the [change in ownership], SUGEN Products developed based on such targets shall be subject to the license payments described in Section 8 hereto" (emphasis added). Although ...


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