Roche's Spark sues gene therapy rival bluebird for using 'spark' in its marketing campaigns

Roche’s Spark Therapeutics and fellow biotech bluebird bio are both developing gene therapies for blood disorders. Now, the two have found themselves in a legal battle that’s not about their treatments or patents, but, instead, trademarks.

Spark is suing bluebird for misusing its trademark, namely the word “spark,” in marketing campaigns, according to a complaint filed Monday before a federal court in Delaware.

The Roche subsidiary is asking bluebird to stop infringing its trademarks and hand over ownership of the related direct-to-consumer projects. It’s also seeking financial damages.

Spark has been using the “spark” word in its biologic therapies and also in education materials related to genetic disease and gene therapies, the company contends. But bluebird recently launched an educational campaign called “Be the Spark” for sickle cell disease, one of its key therapeutic areas of interest. Bluebird’s developing its LentiGlobin gene therapy—which is approved in Europe as Zynteglo for the blood disorder beta thalassemia—for sickle cell disease. In contrast, Spark is mainly focused on hemophilia.

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Spark alleges bluebird intentionally adopted an identical mark for the advertising campaign. Since Spark’s name and bluebird’s use of the word “spark” are similar in terms of appearance and underlying commercial meaning, bluebird’s move is “highly likely to confuse consumers and medical professionals in the gene therapy community, and to weaken Sparks’ brand and position in the market,” Spark said in its complaint.

Bluebird has filed trademark applications for such slogans as “Be the Spark,” “I am the Spark,” “Spark Change” and “Spark Action” that intend to cover promotional and educational activities related to disease and gene therapy, all already being used by the Roche unit for years, the company said in its suit.

The bluebird campaign is being housed at the website, and Spark wants bluebird to stop using it—along with all the slogans—and cough up the domain.

RELATED: Bluebird bio lays off staffers in Europe as Zynteglo rollout hits an early reimbursement snag

Bluebird declined to comment on the legal matter but said it’s proud of the “Be the Spark” sickle cell disease awareness campaign. The company believes patients have benefited from the information.

For bluebird, the lawsuit comes amid a rough year. Its lead LentiGlobin project has been put on clinical hold after cancer cases emerged in sickle cell disease patients who took the gene therapy in a phase 1/2 clinical trial. An investigation by the company essentially exonerated the gene therapy, and one of the two cancer cases was re-diagnosed to a different disorder.

Further, reimbursement talks for Zynteglo in Europe hit a snag as the company failed to reach an agreement with German authorities. As a result, the company has decided to withdraw the drug from the country and is laying off staffers in the region.