When South Side-based startup Knopp Biosciences announced last year that it had found a deep-pocketed partner to commercialize its promising new drug for treating Lou Gehrig's disease, another local group was nodding proudly behind the scenes.
The intellectual property practice in the Pittsburgh office of Philadelphia-based Pepper Hamilton had developed a patent strategy to protect Knopp's new drug -- called dexpramipexole -- from being poached, said Raymond Miller, a partner in the Pittsburgh office in charge of the IP practice.
For Mr. Miller, a patent attorney who has been with Pepper Hamilton in Pittsburgh for nearly 10 years, the work for Knopp has become one of his two most rewarding cases. (The other involved the anti-cancer drug Erbitux.)
"Patients are so desperate for a treatment" for the fatal ailment, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, Mr. Miller said.
"There are not many drugs that impact ALS at all. It's a terrible disease."
Dexpramipexole, which in early clinical trials showed it could slow the disease by as much as 50 percent, is in late-stage clinical development and has received fast-track status from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Mr. Miller said he takes pride in helping to protect inventors so they can develop products "without someone simply spending more money to beat them to the finish line."
The practice's biggest clients come from the life sciences industry, which includes pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and medical devices.
When Mr. Miller, who grew up in a small town near Canton, Ohio, moved to Pittsburgh 10 years ago, he was one of just a few patent attorneys at the firm.
Today, Pepper Hamilton employs some 50 patent attorneys companywide plus another roughly 50 attorneys in the broader intellectual property group, which also encompasses copyright, trade secret and trademark law.
Mr. Miller, 43, said he was drawn to a career in patent law while earning a master's degree in chemistry at Princeton University, where he developed a drug to treat cancer.
He and his professor were unsuccessful at bringing the drug to market, Mr. Miller said, "but all of a sudden there was this new field I became aware of." From Princeton, he went on to earn a law degree from Case Western Reserve University.
One of the unique things about being a patent attorney is that it requires a background in science or engineering, he said.
Mr. Miller said the biggest misconception about patent law is the notion that getting a patent means "people will be required to pay you."
"What a patent gives you is a right to go out and stop people from doing things. To do that, you have to litigate to enforce it," he said.
Many inventors don't understand that, Mr. Miller said.
"If you have a patent, you have to make sure people know that patent exists. A big company could develop that product without paying you unless you took them to court or somehow enforced your patent right against them."
"A patent is a very big stick in competing against companies," he said, because of the specter of large penalties for patent infringement.
Pepper Hamilton's Pittsburgh patent practice has gained a national reputation in pharmaceuticals and consumer electronics, such as cell phones, Mr. Miller said.
He attributed that success in part to the cohesiveness of the attorneys in his group, many of whom were trained in Western Pennsylvania, have strong ties to the community and have worked together for up to a decade.
"We retain a lot of institutional knowledge working here for so many years," he said.
Even though Pittsburgh is home to thriving high technology and life sciences sectors, most of his office's work comes from outside this region, Mr. Miller said.
"We have a spectacular practice, and it's sitting in Pittsburgh," he said.
"There is a lot of great high-technology coming out of Pittsburgh. Sometimes, people are not aware they have people in their backyard who can protect it."
Patricia Sabatini: email@example.com or 412-263-3066.