Patent Debate Stalling Stem Cell Research More Than President Bush Veto

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 24, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Patent Debate Stalling Stem Cell Research More Than President Bush Veto

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by Steven Ertelt Editor
July 24, 2006

Madison, WI ( — A debate over patents on human embryonic stem cells is stalling progress in the research much more than President Bush’s veto last week of a bill to spend taxpayer funds on it. Researchers and consumer groups are clashing over whether a Wisconsin group should benefit from the therapies other researchers may find from the cells.

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) currently holds three patents that it says essentially give it rights over all of the human embryonic stem cells in the U.S.

If that’s true, then any scientist or group that produces therapies from embryonic stem cells would have to get permission from WAR or pay it royalties from the profits derived from a therapy.

One researcher, Jeanne Loring, who directs human embryonic stem cell research at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in California, told the Contra Costa Times newspaper that the patent dispute is driving some scientists overseas.

"The patents are impeding our research," Loring said. "They’re more important than what’s going on in the Senate right now.

"It is making scientists go overseas to do this sort of research," she added. "It isn’t the funding that’s sending us overseas. It’s the patent issues."

Loring said scientists can easily obtain licenses to work with the embryonic stem cells but the problems would come into play if they ever produced therapies, which none have so far. But biotech firms must pay anywhere from $75,000 to 250,000.

WARF’s patents are based on the work of James Thompson, the University of Wisconsin researcher who first isolated embryonic stem cells in 1998.

Two consumer groups last week filed a lawsuit against WARF over the patents the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The suits seek to have the patents rescinded and say the patents are too broad and that scientists who further embryonic stem cell research should get their own specific patents.

John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, one of the groups that filed the legal challenge, told the Times, "The debate in Washington is morally based, but what’s at stake with the patents is essentially money."

Simpson said the WARF patent rights aren’t recognized y other countries, which allow scientists to work overseas with the hope of profiting from potential therapies.

The Public Patent Foundation, a nonprofit group that represents the public in patent policy, joined in the lawsuit.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will take about three months to review the lawsuits and decide whether to re-examine the patents. If it does reconsider the patents, the whole process to review and change them could take as long as three years.

The California stem cell research board that will dole out $3 billion in taxpayer funds for embryonic stem cell research and human cloning has no position on the patent debate.