Embryonic Stem Cell Research Patent Holder Challenges Govt Decision

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 31, 2007   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

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by Steven Ertelt
LifeNews.com Editor
May 31
, 2007

Madison, WI (LifeNews.com) — The Wisconsin company that holds the patent on most embryonic stem cells is challenging the federal government’s rejection of its patent. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation holds the patents on researcher James Thompson’s work and has called it a "landmark invention."

Thompson is considered the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells in 1998, a controversial work because human embryos must be destroyed to obtain them.

WARF currently holds three patents that it says essentially give it rights over all of the human embryonic stem cells in the U.S.

The U.S Patent and Trademark Office issued a preliminary decision in April and said it was considering throwing out the patents. It called them an obvious work based on previous research by other scientists.

The foundation filed a formal challenge to the decision on Thursday and argues the patent office relied on irrelevant previous patents and publications in making its decision.

"Clearly, at the time of the discoveries leading scientists and scholars from around the world saw Thomson as the first scientist to isolate and proliferate human embryonic stem cells," said WARF’s managing director, Carl Gulbrandsen, said.

He said he was confident the patents would be upheld.

The patents have been controversial because WARF charged hundreds of thousands of dollars to scientists and research universities to use the stem cells covered under its patents. Some scientists said those fees, not President Bush’s limits on taxpayer funding of the science, put limits on it.

WARF eventually announced in January that it will waive some of its fees to fuel more embryonic stem cell research.

Under the new policies, some scientists using the patented embryonic stem cells will now be allowed to share them with other researchers at no cost. Also, companies wanting to sponsor the destructive research at universities won’t have to pay as much as $400,000 for licenses.

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.

Pro-life advocates oppose embryonic stem cell research because the cells can only be obtained by destroying human embryos. They point to the use of adult stem cells as a better alternative because they have already helped patients with at least 70 different diseases and conditions.